Lt. Gen. Elvin R. "Vald" Heiberg III, who became, in 1984, the youngest U.S. Army officer to lead the Corps of Engineers since the 19th century but who also expressed some post-Hurricane Katrina regret over his role in the agency's earlier actions and decisions in construction of regional defenses, died on Sept. 27 in Arlington, Va., at age 81.
The cause was cancer, says a spokesman for Dawson & Associates, the lobbying firm for which he was senior adviser.
Heiberg's 35-year Army career included commands in Korea and Vietnam before he was named to lead the Corps New Orleans district and its Ohio River division in the 1970s. Heiberg was agency director of civil works from 1979 to 1982 and managed the Army's ballistic-missile defense program for one year.
When Heiberg assumed the role of Corps chief at age 52, Congress had just passed a record $16.3-billion water-resource project funding bill for the first time in 16 years. He termed the bill a "hunting license" for projects, noting that it set what he called "monumental" guidelines on cost-sharing between the federal government and state and local agencies. Heiberg also presided over Corps efforts to expand work for other military and federal agencies.
According to Heiberg, Corps projects prevented about $27 billion in flood-control damage in fiscal 1986. But he also lamented, after the 2005 hurricane, his role in not pushing harder for storm-surge barriers in New Orleans in the 1970s and 1980s against strong opposition from environmentalists.
"In retrospect, that was the biggest mistake I made during my 35 years as an Army officer," he wrote in a 2007 letter to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "As too many continue to rush around to find someone to blame for the Katrina engineering failures, they can blame me. I gave up too easily."
Heiberg "always set the example for honesty and integrity and ... led by example," J. Richard Capka, Dawson chief operating officer and a former Corps brigadier general, told ENR. "As a leader, he never failed to credit his organization's successes to its employees while choosing to personally shoulder the responsibility for any failures."
After retiring in 1988, Heiberg was the CEO of an environmental cleanup unit of J.A. Jones Construction, started an engineering consulting firm and joined Dawson in 1998.
In addition to numerous military honors, he was elected, in 1995, to the National Academy of Engineering and became, in 2002, a founding member of the National Academy of Construction.