People’s hero, Corps’ villain or both? Investigator’s life upended by Katrina findings

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Courtesy of Ivor van Heerden

Coastal scientist and levee-failure investigator Ivor van Heerden is enjoying retirement and some distance from his former employer Louisiana State University.

Coastal scientist and levee-failure investigator Ivor van Heerden is enjoying retirement and some distance from his former employer Louisiana State University.

Courtesy of Ivor van Heerden

Like many Hurricane Katrina survivors, former Louisiana State University research scientist and instructor Ivor van Heerden sometimes tears up at certain memories. He didn’t lose a house or a family member. He lost his career.

That still hurts because it was taken from him by the people he was trying to help.

Of all the stories of tragedy and triumph being told during the 10th anniversary of Katrina’s landfall, few are more perplexing than van Heerden’s.

As the storm approached the city, he was co-director of the LSU Hurricane Research Center, respected nationally for its storm-surge modeling and for his research and public advocacy as director of the LSU Center for the Study of Health Impacts of Hurricanes.

Within days of the storm, van Heerden was leading investigations that would prove the flooding was not a result of a natural disaster. He showed it was manmade, a result of faulty engineering, building and maintenance by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He was perhaps the first investigator to prove that the levees had not been overtopped — as the Corps tried to argue — but that they had crumbled at water levels well below their mandated design strength.

Those insights — which the Corps eventually  conceded — made van Heerden a hero to the people of a city and state who were being told they were fools to live at or below below sea level. In the storm’s immediate aftermath, van Heerden’s tireless availability to world media made him one of Louisiana’s most recognizable faces. He formed Team Louisiana, a panel of researchers and engineers that investigated what went wrong.

Almost at once, the Corps, a rich source of university research dollars, began putting pressure on LSU to fire him. He would eventually receive gag orders, have his job restructured, his salary cut and watch the university shut down the research centers he helped start.

He was fired in 2009. Four years later, LSU settled a lawsuit van Heerden filed over that firing, for an undisclosed sum. But by then he had found a new home in a cove on Chesapeake Bay. Now retired and a month from turning 65, he said the setting provides an ideal shelter for his sailboat and healing for a psyche shredded by his professional ordeal.

Van Heerden returned to Louisiana this week to receive a community service award from the African American Leadership Project, and to attend a reunion of staffers from the now defunct LSU Hurricane Research Center staff.

He talked to The Lens’ Bob Marshall about his Katrina experience. The following is a condensed version of their discussion, edited for clarity.

The Lens: When were you first concerned about New Orleans’ vulnerability to hurricanes?

Van Heerden: After working for years on the coast [for the state Department of Natural Resources and at LSU,] and seeing how exposed so many communities were, I had always had a concern that Louisiana in general did not understand what could actually happen if we got a major storm.

But it was in 1999, after we went down and toured the entire levee system, that I realized New Orleans was totally susceptible to being flooded. We saw levees were sagging on London Avenue and couple of other sites. When we looked at the earthen levees on the MR-GO [Mississippi River Gulf Outlet] I said to myself, ‘These things are not going to last in a real storm.’

Then, after we started the Hurricane Center [in 2002] and developed the models, we realized the city was basically unprotected from a large storm like [1965’s Hurricane] Betsy.

What was the 2004 Hurricane Pam exercise, and what did it show?

Pam was a FEMA exercise we participated in with the Corps, the state, the city and the surrounding parishes using our models to determine what the consequences would be if a slow-moving Category 3 hurricane hit Louisiana on the same track of Betsy.

The first thing it showed was the levees were way too low and the entire city would be flooded for weeks and take ages to pump out. The second thing was a consulting company we used estimated there would be 60,000 deaths, and more than a million evacuees.

What was the response from Corps and the other agencies attending?

The Corps people, especially those in the back of the room, mocked us. We could hear them talking to each other, basically laughing at us. They were saying these levees were built to the highest standards, and this wasn’t going to happen.

But the state and parishes were very serious. Col. Mike Brown [then head of state emergency planning] asked me to make 60 DVD copies of the storm models. He wanted to send them to senior officials with the Corps, at the Pentagon, our congressional delegation and President Bush. He was one person who realized just how serious the situation was.

Did the Pam exercise show the levees and floodwall would collapse?

No. The models we used were for storm surge – the height of the surge and the waves. There were no models showing if a levee would fail.  But after seeing the state of some of those levees, I realized that would likely happen. I’d worked on designing levees, and I knew what could cause them to breach.

What was your relationship with the Corps at this time?

Actually not too bad. I had worked with them on a number of projects. In fact, we [LSU] had four seats at the main emergency operations center in Baton Rouge right across from the Corps.

When did you realize the levees had not just been overtopped, but had failed by collapsing during Katrina?

When we first heard the 17th Street Canal floodwall had come down. I knew our computer models had done a wonderful job and they showed surge would not have gone over 10.5 feet in that canal – which meant they could not have been overtopped. So if the wall came down, that was an indication that there may have been a catastrophic structural failure.

I went to Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s staff in the main operations center and talked to Steve Perry, her chief of staff. He told me to go out there, find out and report back to us but don’t tell anyone else. He said the state was going to have to decide how to respond if it turns out the levees had been under-designed.

When did you get your first looks at the system?

On Friday [four days after the storm] I was able to get a plane and fly over part of the city. I videoed 28 breaches.

The following Monday we got an escort from state police and went down to the 17th Street Canal breach. What I saw convinced me there had been a catastrophic structural failure. There had been an engineering failure.

I remember looking at [coastal expert] Paul Kemp and saying to him, “Are you ready for the fight of your life?” That’s because I knew what the push back would be once we reported this.

I knew we had to report it. We were the guys who had the data, who had the models. I had worked on levees a lot in the past, and in fact had designed levees [in his native South Africa] so I knew what I was looking at.

The Corps was still trying to tell people this was an act of God. I said we couldn’t let them do that. People needed to know the truth.

I was giving interviews, but nothing was really grabbing the public’s attention, so I knew the nation wouldn’t take notice until this story appeared above the fold on the front page of a national paper – like The New York Times or Washington Post.

And that’s what happened.

How did the Corps and the state and LSU react to that attention?

The Corps was putting pressure on us from the very first week. [A Corps official] got wind of what I had found the first week after the storm and contacted the university to put pressure on us to back off.

After we formed Team Louisiana it just kept building. [The university] issued a gag order, then rescinded it. They actually tried to fire me at one point, but the governor’s office and I think the attorney general got wind of it, and told them to back off.

But it never really let up.

What was your personal life like then?

It was really, really tough. I went to my wife early on and told her what was going on and what it would be like. She said to go with it. But it was very, very difficult. I had a mortgage, a career. I had children in school. I had research centers to run. All of that was being threatened to be torn apart. We were working long, long hours and trying to keep our families together.

There were people at the university — some  I thought were friends —  doing everything they could to stop us, to undermine us and to make our lives a living hell.

But we couldn’t quit. I felt I had a responsibility as a Christian, as well as a scientist and researcher, to tell the truth. People had lost their homes, their careers — even their lives — because of these failures, and they had a right to know.

I didn’t really realize just how tiring it all was until it was over — with the court settlement in 2013. That’s the first time I felt relaxed since the start of everything back in 2005.

Much of what you reported was later validated in other reports, including one by the Corps. Did LSU ever back off?

No. They kept the pressure up every way they could. They changed my contract and wouldn’t allow me to teach anymore. They told me what research I could and couldn’t do. They cut my salary. I just tried to stay below the radar. If they said write 10 papers a year, I wrote 10 papers.

I basically didn’t own my life for about 4 years.

What happened to the Hurricane Center?

They killed it. Eventually they got rid of everyone who worked there. That is such a great shame for the state.

When were you finally fired?

In 2009 they called me in and said my contract was not going to be renewed. I asked them why and they said they didn’t have to give me a reason. They said it wasn’t performance related, but they were still terminating me.

Your suit was finally settled in 2013. What did you do between 2009 and then?

I was able to get a job to work on the oil spill recovery until I injured my neck in an airboat accident.

You and your wife eventually settled on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. What does the future hold?

Well, we’re really enjoying retirement. I never realized how wonderful a place the Chesapeake is to headquarter for a sailor.  The fishing is great and the hunting isn’t bad.

We enjoy traveling, visiting our daughters and our grandchild. I’m writing chapters of [text] books, and some friends have urged me to write about my experience in Louisiana. I also have an idea for a novel which would involve sailing.

You said you have followed the rebuilding of the city’s hurricane defenses. Are we safer now?

I’m not convinced. The first thing to remember is the Corps keeps claiming Katrina is 1-in-400-year event, and it was shown by our team and the National Hurricane Center that Katrina is a 1-in-30-year storm. You don’t have to go too far back in history and look at how many major storms made landfall in Louisiana. You find four or five storms that would qualify: Rita, Katrina, Camille, Betsy. So it’s a good bet storms like Katrina are going to happen far more than once in 400 years.

The other thing that concerns me is that, when I did have access to the Corps’ models, there were some problems that needed to be corrected. I don’t know that they have.

And people need to realize that the Corps no longer talks about hurricane protection but risk reduction. It’s not the same thing.

Has this return trip been difficult emotionally for you?

Yes and no. It’s hard to describe. Katrina consumed so much of our lives and put such a strain on our families. So it brings up a lot of the memories, a lot of the really bad things we saw. But the one lingering question I have is ‘Why did I get fired? What did I do wrong?’

It’s very hard for a man to get fired. You’re the bread winner the head of the family, you have to make it all work. So there is still that hurt associated with that.

And I’m very disappointed that we’re 10 years out and I don’t think we are that much safer.

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