Lt. Gen. Elvin R. Heiberg III, former chief of the Army Corps of Engineers who was best known for his public declaration that he failed to fight hard enough for the installation of floodgates that might have spared New Orleans from the flooding devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, died Sept. 27 at the Capital Caring hospice in Arlington. He was 81.
The cause was cancer, said daughter Kay Bransford.
Gen. Heiberg, known as “Vald,” was a third-generation graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and he received the Silver Star for his service in Vietnam as commander of a combat engineer battalion during the war.
Within a few years after his return from Vietnam, Gen. Heiberg headed the Army Corps of Engineers district that includes New Orleans. He was chief of the entire Corps of Engineers, which oversees hurricane protection, from 1984 to 1988.
While he was serving in New Orleans, the corps devised a plan to protect the city from flooding by installing giant floodgates at the eastern end of Lake Pontchartrain to block storm-driven water surges from the Gulf of Mexico from reaching the lake.
During Katrina, gulf water surged into the lake and from the lake into New Orleans’s 17th Street Canal. When the canal wall collapsed, the water poured into the city with catastrophic results.
Environmental groups opposed the flood-surge gates idea, and in 1977 a judge sided with them, ruling that the Corps of Engineers had not fully evaluated the environmental impact of floodgates.
Gen. Heiberg told National Public Radio in 2006, “I think it was 1985, and I said ‘OK, we give up.’ So we just quit on the flood-surge gates. And as I have told a number of people I think that’s probably the biggest mistake I made when I was head of the Corps of Engineers. . . . I should have kept fighting. I think Katrina proved that.”
The corps instead built flood walls and raised levees, an approach that was still incomplete when Hurricane Katrina struck. Agreement is not unanimous that the proposed floodgates would, in fact, have stopped Katrina’s water surge and subsequent flooding.
Elvin Ragnvald Heiberg III was born March 2, 1932, at the Army’s Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. He graduated in 1953 from West Point and later received three master’s degrees, one in civil engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and two from George Washington University, one in government and the other in administration.
As the Corps of Engineers’ director of civil works, he oversaw the cleanup and infrastructure rebuilding effort after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state.
Besides the Silver Star, his decorations included two awards of the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After his military retirement, Gen. Heiberg was chief executive of an environmental engineering firm in Wilmington, Del. Later in Charlotte, he headed an environmental branch of a construction company.
He returned to the Washington area in 1993 and founded Heiberg Associates, which provides engineering and environmental consulting services. He retired from that work two years ago.
He was a member of several environmental organizations, included the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.
He lived at the Fairfax retirement facility at Fort Belvoir. Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Kathryn Schrimpf “Kitty” Heibert of Fairfax; four children, Kathy H. Browning of Ventura, Calif., Walter Heiberg of San Diego, Elvin R. Heiberg IV of Denver and Kay Bransford of McLean; a sister; and four grandchildren.