Alumni Spotlights

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Kevin Wagner, Project Manager, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Every UNO graduate leaves some indelible mark on New Orleans, but few have done so much to literally support the city as Kevin Wagner. An employee of the Protection Restoration Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Kevin was honored twice at the 2011 USACE Summer Leaders Conference Awards Dinner as part of “Team New Orleans,” lauded for outstanding achievement in professional excellence and efforts to reduce risk for the people of the Greater New Orleans area.

The Awards personally recognized Kevin as the USACE Project Manager of the Year; he leads a multi-disciplinary project delivery team for the West Closure Complex, one of the largest and most intricate undertakings ever mounted by the Corps. This effort is part of the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, a webwork of levees, floodwalls, floodgates, surge barriers and pump stations designed to protect the region in the face of disaster.

Kevin’s West Closure Complex team also won the USACE Innovation of the Year Award in recognition of its inspired solutions. Their work had an immediate and positive impact on the design and construction of a super structure comprising a collection of six subprojects: the largest drainage pump station in the world; the largest sector gate in the nation; T-Walls; a closure wall; a sluice gate; and a system of site work featuring an inlet road, levees and channel excavation.

Like many UNO students, Kevin was not the traditional college pupil, that freewheeling teenaged pop culture stalwart; he was in his late 20s, working for a family business when the economy took a turn for the worse. With a wife, a four year old child and another baby on the way to support, “I decided to finish my degree and I enrolled at the University of New Orleans." 

While still a student at UNO, he got a job working at the Corps. When he graduated at the age of 30, he was offered a position in the planning division. Soon after Katrina hit, Kevin was assigned to the Corps’ first post-hurricane mission, Task Force Unwatering, which removed 250 billion gallons of water from the city in 53 days.

This vital work took Kevin first to Vicksburg, Mississippi to Corps Division headquarters, then to Port Allen, Louisiana, where the Corps has emergency offices.  Eventually, he returned to the New Orleans District, whereupon he was put in charge of rebuilding efforts in St. Bernard Parish under the Corps’ Task Force Guardian mission. This contingent, created in response to the storm, was charged with repairing and restoring the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System to pre-Katrina conditions.

Task Force Guardian completed 60 contracts in a four-parish area in just nine months. “It was over a billion dollars’ worth of work. It was an amazing feat. We felt like family after a while because we worked 16-20 hour days and everyone had the same goal,” said Kevin. “If I work an eight-hour day now it seems like a vacation.”

Kevin’s dedication to his work and to those most affected by Hurricane Katrina springs in part from his own experience. He and his two younger brothers were born and raised in St. Bernard Parish and all three lost their homes in the storm. His parents lost their home as well. “My brother’s house literally floated off the foundation and across the canal,” he explained. “He still came to work after that.”

This kind of commitment runs deep in the Wagner family.  Thanks to projects like the West Closure Complex and to people like Kevin Wagner, the Greater New Orleans system of hurricane and storm damage risk reduction is stronger than ever. In repairing and rebuilding levees and floodwalls, the Corps has incorporated lessons and recommendations from scientific organizations, government agencies, the private sector and, perhaps most vitally, from past experience. In short, they are making sure New Orleans stays put. “I enjoy working here,” Kevin said. “I know how important the work is. It makes a big difference in people’s lives.”

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