Corps’ New Orleans office working out of Vicksburg|[9/3/05]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 3, 2005

Engineering work for New Orleans is now being done in Vicksburg after the New Orleans District staff of the Army Corps of Engineers was relocated here from the flooded city.

The task ahead may be one of the most complex in engineering history as the Corps must help “de-water” the city, which filled after barriers protecting it were breached Tuesday.

Also Friday, Michael Logue, public affairs chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Vicksburg District said the Mississippi River around the ports of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La. – closed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – was to be reopened to navigation by today.

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The New Orleans District personnel are working in Vicksburg District offices on East Clay Street as part of an existing disaster plan to “fall back” to Vicksburg. The move started a week ago, two days before Katrina hit its home city, Logue said.

The federal offices at 4155 Clay St. lost power with most of the rest of Vicksburg during the storm, but employees who have moved to the multipurpose room there have continued to work using backup generators and sharing computers, Logue said.

In addition to public works and infrastructure failures, many have watched on television as their homes were destroyed. They also heard their mayor, Ray Nagin, order a complete abandonment of their city for the near future.

“You’re sitting there watching while your life is destroyed, but yet they’ve still got to sit here and keep their wits about them,” Logue said.

New Orleans District Public Affairs spokesman Jim Hall said most of his co-workers and probably most of their family members had been able to be contacted since the storm hit, and many know the news is not good.

“I don’t think I’ve got a home left,” Hall said.

As employees and contractors in the multi-purpose room were working in planning, support and consulting roles, other New Orleans District employees were on the ground and on the water nearer the city. One of two reported initial breaches, that on the New Orleans side of the 17th Street Canal, was about 75 percent repaired, Hall said.

The New Orleans District commander, Col. Richard Wagenaar, had remained in the area, Hall said. Both districts are under the command of the Mississippi Valley Division, also based in Vicksburg. The division commander, Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, had traveled to the area in the Corps’ Motor Vessel Mississippi, Logue said.

The Corps is working in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Logue said.

Corps employees are also trained in the logistics of providing ice and water and helping with debris removal and temporary housing. The plan for such disasters is for them to arrive here in small groups and then to be dispatched to the affected area, Logue said.

A “mini-district,” beginning with about 75 Corps personnel, was to be established Sunday under the command of the Vicksburg District’s commander, Col. Anthony Vesay, at a U.S. Army National Guard armory in Gulfport, Logue said.

The “recovery field office” would be in charge of five counties bordering and just north of the Gulf of Mexico in southern Mississippi, Logue said. It could eventually employ about 1,000 people itself, he added.

The Mississippi Gulf Coast area is part of the Corps’ Mobile District, but the Corps’ disaster plan calls for the Vicksburg District to handle recovery efforts if the Mobile District cannot respond, Logue said.