Corps commander passes the torch

The flag was officially passed on Thursday, putting control of one of the largest civil works projects in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into the hands of Col. Richard Hansen.

At the change-of-command ceremony on the edge of the Mississippi River, Hansen became the 62nd Commander and District Engineer of the Corps’ New Orleans District.

With an annual price tag over $300 million, the program under Hansen’s command includes 2,800 miles of navigable waterways, five of the 15 largest ports in the country, 1,300 miles of levees and floodwalls, 11 navigational locks, and six major flood control structures. There are also numerous mitigation and coastal restoration projects that fall under Hansen’s authority.

Outgoing Commander Col. Edward Fleming said his goodbyes to a large crowd, his voice full of emotion.

Maj. Gen. John Peabody, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division and president of the Mississippi River Commission, praised Fleming for his thoughtful and humble leadership, and ability to inspire to others to do their best.

In particular, Peabody commended Fleming for the handling of the 2011 Mississippi River flood, and the drought in 2012. He also noted that Fleming was at the helm for Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Isaac, the first major tests of the Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System.

“I leave with my integrity in hand, and indebted to no man,” Fleming said, before adding that he was indebted to two women — his wife and daughter.

He thanked those who served under him, and recalled memorable moments over the past three years.

As Hansen took the podium, he acknowledged he had big shoes to fill.

A native of Missouri, Hansen most recently served as executive director of military and international operations for the corps and has been deployed overseas to combat zones multiple times. He has a master’s degree in strategic studies from the National War College and is a licensed professional engineer in Virginia.

Hansen commended Fleming for the relationships he built and his communication with stakeholders.

“Now is the time to focus on the future,” Hansen said in a written statement. “My primary focus in the coming months is to continue to build upon local, state and federal partnerships forged over the years.”

Over the next three years, Hansen will continue the work of completing the hurricane protection system before turning it over to local control.

Tim Doody, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority – East, said conversations are continuing about when to turn different parts of the $14.5 billion system over to local control. He spoke of the importance of making sure the system is in “pristine condition” and functions as designed before the handover.

In about two weeks, ground will break on construction on one of the last major projects: Replacing temporary pumping stations with permanent ones at three outfall canals, a project Doody said will take about two years to complete.

Doody said the hurricane protection system is between 85 and 95 percent complete in terms of dollars spent. He said the next critical step is to armor the system. While the system is designed to provide 100-year storm protection, the armor is designed to be resilient in a 500-year storm.

Doody said he wished Fleming was staying through the end.

“If I was boss of the world,” he said, “I would not have a change of command in the middle of construction.”

Doody said he had hoped the New Orleans project might constitute an exception to the military policy of three-year stints, noting that Fleming had amassed a great depth of experience — and also built a wealth of personal relationships.

“He did what he did with great humility, and never lost control. He never treated anyone with disrespect, and listened. He may not have given you the answer you like, but it was well-reasoned,” Doody said. “He’s just a good guy.”

Being district commander comes with huge responsibility, Doody noted, including not just flood protection but management of the river, and participation in proposed restoration projects that are often tricky politically and emotionally.

“I’ve been fortunate to meet many of the Corps’ local and state partners in the last few weeks. I appreciate their hospitality, openness and sincere desire to work together, and I look forward to meeting many more local stakeholders and groups in the coming weeks,” Hansen said in the statement.

In a tearful closing, Fleming advised Hansen: “Put faith in the people in the New Orleans District — they will not let you down.” To the crowd, Fleming said, “I believed in you and still believe in you. I trusted in you and still trust you, I cared about you and still care about you.”