New Corps Chief Says He’s Committed to Rebuilding New Orleans

A year after his predecessor acknowledged the Army Corps of Engineers’ responsibility for the catastrophic flooding in Hurricane Katrina, the newly appointed head of the agency toured this still-battered city May 31 to get a sense for the work ahead.

Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp said he is committed to ensuring the corps does exemplary work in repairing and upgrading the city’s flood defenses to withstand most major storms.

“We’re going to break our backs getting there,” Van Antwerp, who was appointed chief engineer about two weeks ago, told a news conference on a bridge over the 17th Street Canal, the site of one of the worst breaches in the city’s levee system during Katrina. He said building trust in his agency is a top priority.

“I’ve given one word to the corps: deliver,” he said, promising to visit the region frequently to track progress. “And it’s going to be delivered with excellence.”

His comments, made during a three-day tour of ongoing work, came a day before the start of the hurricane season, which runs through November. Forecasters predict an active season with 17 named storms, five of them intense. They also believe odds are good for a hurricane to hit somewhere along the Gulf Coast.

The words and actions of Van Antwerp are being carefully measured by residents and local officials for hints of his personal investment in pushing for the reconstruction and protection of New Orleans.

His nomination was temporarily blocked by Louisiana’s two senators, who felt he had not shown enough interest in the state during his nomination process. At their urging, Van Antwerp came to Louisiana for a sense of the environmental and levee issues confronting the region.

On June 1, 2006, the corps’ Lt. Gen. Carl Strock said the agency took responsibility for the flooding of New Orleans by Katrina and said the levees failed because they were built in a disjointed fashion using outdated data. Strock, now retired, was replaced by Van Antwerp.

Van Antwerp said three key reports are upcoming. One, due in June, is a comprehensive assessment of how vulnerable to hurricanes each part of the low-lying Louisiana coast is. That report is supposed to let residents see how their homes would do in about 150 hypothetical storms.

Another report, due in mid-July, will give cost estimates for completing a plethora of projects by the summer of 2011, a deadline Congress set for creating a hurricane protection system that can withstand most major storms.

So far, the corps has spent about $1.5 billion and has about $5.5 billion left for Katrina projects. Van Antwerp would not speculate on whether the money set aside by Congress will suffice.

The third report, expected next summer, specifies the levee, drainage, storm barrier and coastal restoration work needed to guard against the worst of storms, such as the rare Category 5.

Recently the corps tested its newly built system of pumps and flood gates on three drainage canals, two of which were breached during Katrina and caused much of the flooding. Col. Jeffrey Bedey, the commander overseeing the reconstruction work in New Orleans, deemed the tests a success.

Also, a group of prominent New Orleans women known as the Women of the Storm said it plans to send members to states in the northern reaches of the Mississippi River Valley to share their message that the long-term vitality and safety of New Orleans is of national significance.

The goal is to convince congressional members of the link between their economies and the port of New Orleans and oil and natural gas infrastructure in south Louisiana.

“The Women of the Storm can do something better than anyone else: nag, nag, nag,” said Anne Milling, the group’s founder.

Separately, the city of New Orleans announced an emergency text and voice message system – called NOLA Ready – meant to provide registered residents, tourists and others information about such things as evacuations.

If Mayor Ray Nagin orders a mandatory evacuation, all residents would be asked to leave, the city said, and there will be no shelters of last resort. Officials, including Nagin, stressed the need for residents to form hurricane readiness plans of their own.

Asked whether he was dreading the upcoming hurricane season, Nagin said he was instead “dreading people underestimating where they were during Katrina and taking that for granted and thinking that because they were safe during Katrina, they don’t have to worry about anything. That’s what I dread.”

He said one of the areas of concern for him is Algiers and the west bank of the Mississippi River, which did not get nearly as much damage as that on the river’s east bank after Katrina. He said that if an evacuation is called, “we want to make sure the people on the west bank understand it was by the grace of God you were spared last time, because your levees are not up to the new standards. So we don’t want you to have a false sense of security.”

Associated Press writer Becky Bohrer contributed to this report.