Col. Richard P. Wagenaar
Commander and District Engineer, New Orleans District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Posted January 2007
Col. Richard P. Wagenaar FRM '82 was just six weeks into his new job as leader of the New Orleans District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when Hurricane Katrina blew into southeastern Louisiana.
"When it struck, I still hadn't even met some of my employees yet. I didn't know all the streets in the city," Wagenaar said. "The hurricane was truly an indoctrination I didn't expect."
Within a few weeks, Wagenaar saw his annual budget balloon from $350 million to some $3 billion. The focus of his work narrowed from a variety of areas to hurricane protection and environmental restoration.
As the Corps continues its work in New Orleans, Wagenaar approaches his job with the sensibilities of an environmental scientist.
"The Corps of Engineers is probably the largest civil engineering organization in the world, and probably 50 percent of the leaders are engineers," he said. "They typically don't have environmental scientists as leaders. I just lead the district a little differently."
Wagenaar spent his childhood on a farm in Carthage, N.Y., 85 miles north of Syracuse. He was recruited into the ROTC program at the New Mexico Military Institute, where he earned an associate's degree in biology. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army and returned east to study forestry at ESF, graduating with his bachelor's degree in 1982. He later earned master's degrees from Cardinal Stritch College in Wisconsin and the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
The Army matched him with the Corps of Engineers because of his interest in the environment.
"I was always an outdoorsman. That's the way I was raised. I wanted to study environmental science and forestry because I thought it would be great to work outside."
His career took him to Massachusetts; Kentucky; Fort Drum, N.Y.; Minnesota; and Virginia. He also served in Korea and Germany. His most recent assignment before taking over in New Orleans was as chief of the Engineer Plans Division with the Republic of Korea Combines Forces Command.
"I look back at ESF and see that degree is paying dividends because I look at things as an environmental scientist would, which is very beneficial in this day and age," he said.
When he joined the Corps, Wagenaar said, it did not have a reputation as an environmentally friendly organization. "Now, when we take an action, we're doing environmental consideration at the same time," he said.
He emphasizes that perspective as the Corps focuses on rebuilding levies and protecting New Orleans from future hurricanes.
"My first thought is, 'How are we going to protect the marshes and ensure there's fresh water flowing?' I think about the surrounding ecosystem. A lot of folks aren't used to that type of thinking from the Corps."
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