NEW ORLEANS – Three top-ranking Army Corps of Engineers officials who led the agency's reconstruction work after Hurricane Katrina are stepping down, prompting critics to again question whether the Corps is able to protect the city from future disasters.
The latest retirements include two top civilians and the New Orleans district engineer. They come on the heels of the retirement of the agency's chief, Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, who said in August he was leaving his post for "family and personal reasons."
The departing Corps officials dismissed suggestions that they are leaving because of criticism showered on the agency after Katrina. Forensics investigations into what caused flood walls to collapse revealed flawed work in the past largely caused the flooding of the central parts of New Orleans.
The officials also said they are not being pushed out by the agency's top brass.
"If those individuals made the decision to continue to do what they were doing, we would have been perfectly happy to allow them to do that," said Gene Pawlik, a Corps spokesman at the agency's headquarters in Washington.
But the retirements are giving critics more reasons to question the agency entrusted with rebuilding the region's levees and flood walls and lead the effort to restore Louisiana's badly eroded coast, which acts as a buffer against hurricanes.
"We're seeing significant turnover at a time when we need consistency and experience in the leadership positions," said Mark Davis, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, a lobbying group.
Ivor van Heerden, a levee expert with Louisiana State University who has battled with the Corps since Katrina over what caused the engineering failures, said the officials may be stepping down because of missteps they made.
"The appearance is, and it is only an appearance, that this is more Corps of Engineers (officials) falling on their swords," van Heerden said.
The Corps faces numerous lawsuits alleging its poor designs caused the flooding of New Orleans during Katrina. The agency has also missed deadlines in its reconstruction work and appeared at times unwilling to accept fault.
Last month, Col. Richard Wagenaar, the New Orleans district's engineer chief who was assigned his post one month before Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, asked the Army to let him retire next summer.
He cited the "mental challenges and physical challenges" of handling the district since Katrina. He was unavailable for comment last week.
Dan Hitchings, a 55-year-old civilian who oversaw the agency's reconstruction mission after Katrina, Task Force Hope, said he is retiring at the end of January.
Hitchings said the change in leadership will not diminish the agency's ability to get the job done.
He said there are many officials in New Orleans and Vicksburg, Miss. — which oversees the New Orleans district — who have the experience and knowledge to deal with Louisiana's unique problems.
"It's not just the leaders who have the history, mostly it's the people who work for us, and they're not changing," Hitchings said. "We're going to have an orderly transition in leadership."
The third top engineer to retire is Greg Breerwood, the New Orleans district's 59-year-old deputy district engineer for project management. With 37 years of experience, he is the senior civilian in the district.
Breerwood said the Corps is about to start the next phase of long-term flood and hurricane protection for Louisiana. His last day on the job is Jan. 3.
"It's best that someone come in to take that next phase all the way to completion," he said.
Van Heerden said Breerwood "was possibly the most powerful person in the New Orleans district, he was the direct contact between the staff and district engineer."
Another top-level shift may not be far off.
Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, commander of the Mississippi Valley division, which oversees the New Orleans district, has already spent more time than the usual two years that division engineers sit in their posts. He did not respond to a call seeking comment.
"I don't think it's just Katrina fatigue, and I don't think it's the Corps clearing the decks for action," Davis said. "Some of it is personal, some dealing with the complexity of running the Corps' business, but the real thing is that it demonstrates just how poorly the Corps is set up to handle the public's business at times like this."