Nowdy wasn’t lying yesterday when she said I was slabbed with work. I’m also slabbed by a nasty virus that has been going around since January but not so much that the significance of Ivor van Heerden’s dismissal from LSU was lost on me when I saw the news very early this morning. I also knew when I saw it that Editilla would be all over it and indeed it headlines today’s New Orleans News Ladder which is where we begin:
This is a Bad News Corps Victory. This bad scene probably has as much to do with Dr. van Heerden’s Storm Surge Modeling running afoul of Gerald Galloway’s, the Storm Surge Modeling Business, FEMA Flood Zone Mapping and undue ASCECORPS influence in National Flood Control Policy.
I wish I could say it was just as simple as a bad news victory for the USACE but there is more as I discovered late this morning when a reader emailed me additional background:
van Heerden was responsible for the pre-Katrina animation of Hurricane Pam, which was largely ignored by the government and the insurance industry. Every time he speaks, he (rightfully) embarrasses someone who did not do their jobs.
Although van Heerden did not become an expert for hire in Katrina litigation, other members of the L.S.U. engineering department and geology/meteorology/climatology departments did for State Farm. This was a “too cute” move by State Farm to try and lend LSU credibilty to its bs defenses.
Evidently it didn’t take too long for enterprising lawyers to make these guys look like fools in depositions. From a PR standpoint the fact these taxpayer paid college professors were working against the very people who paid their salaries was a disaster, kind of like the Allstate Challenge at the 2007 BCS National Championship game in NOLA when former LSU kicker David Browndike was booed off the field at halftime. The readers email concluded:
van Heerden is one of the central figures in all things Katrina-related. When history looks back on his contributions, it will be much the same as Richard Clarke constantly telling the Bush administration that Al Quaida would attack us with our own airplanes.
So why was van Heerden let go? It seems nobody at LSU is talking but that didn’t stop Mark Schleifstein at the Times Picayune from digging a bit deeper and the answer comes back to money – as in fire the man or no more grants for you:
Ivor van Heerden, the outspoken coastal scientist who led the state’s independent Team Louisiana investigation into Hurricane Katrina levee failures, has been notified by Louisiana State University that he will be terminated as a research professor in May 2010.
Van Heerden, who is not a tenured professor, also has been stripped of his title as deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center. Also, engineering professor Marc Levitan has stepped down as the center’s director. University officials say they will reshape the center’s research direction in the wake of the moves.
Van Heerden will remain director of the LSU Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes, financed by a $3.65 million Louisiana Board of Regents Health Excellence Fund, until his LSU contract ends next year.
LSU officials have refused to address the van Heerden decision, citing the school’s policy of not commenting about personnel matters.
“Legally, we’re not allowed to comment on any kind of personnel action, ” said spokeswoman Kristine Calongne. “We’re bound by confidentiality of our employees.”
Van Heerden said the university would not give him a reason, either. David Constant, interim dean of LSU’s College of Engineering, told him the decision “wasn’t due to my performance. But he couldn’t tell me why, ” van Heerden said.
The decision has been brewing ever since van Heerden agreed to head the forensic investigation team in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, he said. Within days of the team’s formation, van Heerden was frequently quoted in national newspaper and television reports, and most of his comments were highly critical of the Army Corps of Engineers’ levee and floodwall construction policies and designs.
In November 2005, he was called to a meeting with two LSU assistant chancellors who van Heerden said told him to stop talking to the press, because it threatened the university’s ability to get research dollars from the federal government.
Former LSU Vice Chancellor for Communications Michael Ruffner, now an official at the University of West Georgia, in a June 2006 letter to The Times-Picayune, gave a different version of the discussion.
“During fall 2005 an issue with Professor van Heerden arose relating to his technical and professional expertise to comment on levees and construction matters because he is trained in geology and botany, and not civil engineering, ” Ruffner wrote.
“At the request of the Dean of Engineering and other members of the engineering faculty, we discussed this with the author and gained his assurance that he would not speak on matters for which he has no professional credentials or experience, like civil engineering.”
The letter appeared soon after the May 2006 publication of van Heerden’s book about Katrina titled, “The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina — The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist.” In the book, van Heerden described what he called attacks on his academic
A version of Ruffner’s letter also appeared in The New York Times, which prompted Levitan to demand a meeting with Ruffner to get a retraction and an apology on van Heerden’s behalf. Although he does not have an engineering degree, van Heerden was granted a doctorate in marine sciences by LSU in 1983, and the research he had overseen at his health center was aimed at determining the potential for hurricane storm surge to overtop the New Orleans levee system.
“I brought a copy of Ivor’s resume, showed him his background and degrees and a copy of the summary of the Team Louisiana contract that Ivor was appointed to head, ” Levitan said Thursday. He also pointed out that van Heerden had issued his critiques of the corps as the director of the forensic investigation, which included a team of scientists and civil engineers.
Ruffner refused to retract the letter or apologize, Levitan said.
“At this point, Ruffner also mentioned to me — and this was still in the post-Katrina environment when, every single day, hurricanes were front-page news — that van Heerden was causing problems with the Hurricane Center and if he were no longer part of the center, things would probably be better for the Hurricane Center on campus, ” Levitan said, “at which point, I told him to go stuff it and walked out of his office.”
Levitan, still an engineering professor in the university’s department of civil and environmental engineering, said he expects to be criticized by LSU’s leadership for revealing his meeting with the chancellors to the media.
“But it’s time for me to come to his defense, ” Levitan said. “For someone who has done so much for LSU and the state, this is uncalled for.”
The university actually moved to limit van Heerden’s role in hurricane research soon after his book came out. The engineering school reclassified him as an associate research professor, which does not allow him to teach classes.
Van Heerden said LSU officials also told him the reclassification prohibited him from making public appearances or working with government agencies. But university officials backed off, in part, after he was able to show them that the grants paying for his research called for him to interact with state and local government officials.
Last year, van Heerden also was ordered not to distribute to the media storm-surge modeling results developed under his direction as Hurricane Gustav approached the state. As part of the Hurricane Center, van Heerden was in charge of the university’s development of ADCIRC storm-surge modeling until Katrina. In that role, he provided surge modeling information to emergency managers at the state and local level and also provided model results to the media in advance of hurricanes.
One such model published by The Times-Picayune the day before Katrina struck predicted that major flooding was likely in St. Bernard Parish, eastern New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward.
Last year, direction of the university’s surge modeling was moved from van Heerden to Robert Twilley, associate vice chancellor of the university’s Office of Research & Development. As Hurricane Gustav approached the Louisiana coastline, LSU scientists using early versions of the ADCIRC surge model ran into problems with the way the model projected water levels in western Louisiana.
Van Heerden said he began getting calls from state and local officials for more accurate information from a separate model that members of his staff were running, but that he had been told not to release the information by LSU officials.
Meantime the for profit engineers at LSU keep on rolling though their hooking for Ed Rust has been greatly curtailed.