- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — 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 can be relied on to protect the city from disasters.

The latest retirements are those of 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 that he was leaving his post for “family and personal reasons.”

Last month, Col. Richard Wagenaar, the New Orleans district engineer who was assigned his post one month before Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, asked the Army to let him retire next summer. Dan Hitchings, a 55-year-old civilian who oversaw Task Force Hope, the agency’s reconstruction mission after Katrina, said he is retiring at the end of January.

The third top engineer to retire is Greg Breerwood, the New Orleans district’s 59-year-old deputy engineer for project management. With 37 years of experience, he is the senior civilian in the district.

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 led to 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 leading the effort to restore Louisiana’s badly eroded coast, which acts as a buffer against hurricanes.

The corps faces numerous lawsuits that say the agency’s poor designs caused the flooding of New Orleans. The agency also has missed deadlines in its reconstruction work and appeared at times unwilling to accept fault.

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