Corps turns to rebuilding, Crear says|[10/14/05]

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 14, 2005

With the coastal emergency over, Army engineers are shifting to rebuilding, the commander of a 3,500-person task force said here Thursday.

In his Vicksburg office for the first time since shortly after Katrina struck Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on Aug. 29, Brig. Gen. Robert Crear said the mission is changing.

Crear, who commands the Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division and its current Gulf Coast response operations, was in his Walnut Street office Thursday on his first trip home.

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Task force personnel in New Orleans have &#8221unwatered“ that city twice over the past 45 days while also supplying people from the coastline between Alabama and Texas ice, water, temporary roofing, debris removal, emergency power and temporary public buildings in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The task force continues to work in three main areas: the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the parts of the New Orleans area that were flooded and the southwestern Louisiana coast that was hit by Hurricane Rita Sept. 24.

The first unwatering of New Orleans was after Katrina, which filled three or four of the city’s 13 subbasins. It was ahead of schedule when Rita approached the coast to the west.

&#8221Matter of fact, the day before (Rita hit), we basically had unwatered the city,“ Crear said.

Estimates of how long it would take to unwater the city were developed with the help of hydrologists from the Corps’ Engineer Research and Development Center, whose headquarters is at Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg.

Crear’s operations officer from the formation of his command staff until just before New Orleans was declared unwatered on Tuesday was the ERDC commander, Col. James Rowan.

&#8221On the Industrial Harbor Navigation Canal, where (a flood-protection wall) did overtop during Rita, we had raised it to an elevation of about 8 feet and the surge was expected to be a foot or two lower than that,“ Rowan said. &#8221What happened was it was higher than that, it did overtop and it flowed primarily into the Ninth Ward and re-flooded it.“

Crear and his staff continued working their regular schedule, from about 6 a.m. to about 1 a.m. the following morning, to unwater the city again.

Repairs to New Orleans’ flood-protection system are still temporary but are being strengthened every day, Rowan said. Plans call for the walls to be raised to a height of 10 feet by Dec. 1 and for all to be restored to their pre-Katrina heights by June 1, he added.

&#8221That’s a very aggressive program to do that amount of work between now and the first of June,“ Rowan said.

The Corps had planned and rehearsed how it would respond to a hurricane’s striking various locations along the Gulf Coast and how it would unwater New Orleans if it flooded, Crear said.

&#8221To execute this plan it takes all six of our districts in the Mississippi Valley Division,“ Crear said of the hurricane-response plan, adding that it is rehearsed each June.

&#8221The flooding added another dimension to the response,“ so Crear added an extra division commander to his staff to concentrate solely on the unwatering mission, he said. And a colonel who had recently retired from the St. Louis District asked for and received leave from his new employer to participate in the task force, Rowan said.

The Corps’ plan for unwatering the city was comprehensive and anticipated flooding in all 13 subbasins, Crear said. It calls for using gravity to the Corps’ advantage as much as possible and, when appropriate, closing the levee breaches completely and pumping the floodwater out, Crear said.

The Vicksburg District commander, Col. Anthony Vesay, is in charge of the Corps’ recovery field office on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the area hardest-hit by Katrina.

Crear’s headquarters is the Corps’ flagship boat, the Motor Vessel Mississippi. Initially docked at Port Allen, across the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge, it has moved forward to the New Orleans area, Crear said.

Crear’s strategy in commanding the effort has been &#8221total engagement“ of the media and local officials during the crisis, he said. His handling of such tasks, as well as higher-level issues involving coordination with FEMA and others, has allowed his staff to focus on the tasks at hand on the ground, Rowan said.

Shortly before Crear returned home this week he visited a Mississippi school that had been destroyed by Katrina and had had temporary classrooms installed by a Corps contractor, he said. Several of the teachers’ homes had been destroyed but &#8221they were overjoyed“ to be back in school teaching children, Crear said.

&#8221You look at the destruction, it’s just unbelievable when you get on the ground,“ Crear said. &#8221But when you start getting through that rubble and start talking with individuals, it can’t help but be inspiring because of the spirit of the people.”

Rowan said floodwater remains in Plaquemines and Terrebonne parishes and that Corps contractors continue to place sandbags in levee breaches there, dropping them in by helicopter, and to work on pumps.

Corps contractors are completing about 1,500 to 2,000 requests a day from homeowners for temporary, blue-tarp roof covers, Rowan said. About 60,000 blue roofs have been requested, about 30,000 for homes damaged by each hurricane, he added.

Debris removal has been complicated by concerns among local officials over contracting requirements but those concerns appear to have been resolved, Crear said.

About 300,000 cubic yards a day of debris is being removed, &#8221but even at that rate these missions are going to go on for the better part of a year,“ Rowan said.

Dr. Paul Mlakar of Vicksburg, a senior scientist at ERDC, is leading the team that is collecting data so the flooding New Orleans experienced can be studied later, Rowan said.

&#8221It will give us an accurate picture of what happened so some independent group can come in and do a full investigation on the performance of the levee system and what the storm actually did,“ Rowan said.

The Corps’ New Orleans District, practically all of whose employees evacuated the city, is expected to be reconstituted by about Wednesday, Rowan said.

Rowan has returned to work at ERDC headquarters at the Waterways Experiment Station. His successor as Crear’s top operations officer is the MVD’s St. Paul District commander, Col. Mike Pfenning. He had been in charge of temporary housing for the task force.

While Crear is commanding Task Force Hope day-to-day operations at MVD headquarters are being handled by its deputy commander, Col. Al Bleakley. Crear said he expects the task force’s presence in the affected area to be reduced beginning next month.

&#8221I can’t tell you right now when I will be not engaged (with Task Force Hope) on a day-to-day basis, but it’s not indefinite,“ Crear said.

Task Force Hope represents the most people ever assigned to one of its disaster-response teams, about 33,500 or more than 10 percent of the Corps’ personnel, Crear said. All eight of the Corps’ divisions and 41 of its 45 districts, from all over the continental United States and as far away as the Far East are involved, Crear said. The total represents 10 percent of the Corps of Engineers’ worldwide staff.

Task Force Hope has been given missions valued at about $3 billion, Crear said. About one-quarter of that amount has been obligated to contractors so far, he added.

Many of the Corps employees helping with the hurricane served with Crear in Iraq, where Crear commanded Task Force Restore Iraqi Oil in 2003, or in Afghanistan, Crear said. Crear said many of those employees have told him they see their relief work as more personal than their service overseas in the war on terrorism.

&#8221It’s personal because it’s Americans serving Americans,“ he said.