Stupid is as stupid does: Scientific Integrity at LSU gets a black eye

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.


19 thoughts on “Stupid is as stupid does: Scientific Integrity at LSU gets a black eye”

  1. This is the time for the LSU Alumni Association to step in and shut down the whore house. If Editilla wants to organize a group of guys to show up at the LSU Hurricane Center in hooker drag to apply for jobs count me in. I’m sure the media will be happy to show the circus but I’d need at least 3 or 4 other guys to join in. Perhaps we could find funds to have some real drag queens show up for the party?

  2. Great video Steve and good idea.

    I think we have something similar here in Mississippi at MSU called the Peter K. Lutken Chair of Insurance.

    I personally have no problems with people earing a living. Hopefully some of those same folks won’t mind us pointing out who they serve.

    When push came to shove who did the local officials with people in Gustav’s harms way go to for accurate info? The answer to that question will tell you exactly who the charlatons are in this.


  3. Here is a lawsuit against one of the private contractors which oversaw the Corps work. Not good—

    This is the first company I looked into but this lawsuit sounds scarey to New Orleans residents. The Court indicates in this engineering failure it was only luck which prevented people from dying. New Oleans deserves better oversight than this company provided its clients. The fact this company is trying to weisel out of their responsibility for one major waterfront disaster does not bode well for their ability to supervisor others work. See the link—

    On May 12, 2005, a 250-foot section of the retaining wall bordering the Castle Village co-op complex collapsed onto the Henry Hudson Parkway, causing a major artery providing access into and out of Manhattan to be shut down and inconveniencing thousands. Remarkably, although there was damage to parked vehicles, no one was injured or killed.

    However, the evidence that MRCE knew
    when it undertook the work on the retaining wall that the work was critical to the approval of the conversion plan, continued to inspect the site after Castle Village was the owner, and that MRCE

  4. The Louisiana Civil Engineer link here from their President actually uses the ASCE recommendation to have professionals be more active—

    As engineers obligated and dedicated to protecting
    the public, we must take appropriate
    action to effectively inform the public concerning
    the safety implications in our works. From
    conversations with neighbors to letters and op-ed
    pieces in newspapers, to briefs for elected officials,
    engineers should speak honestly and candidly
    about the risks to life and property.
    The ASCE External Review Panel recently
    issued a call-to-action letter that encourages us

  5. I just noticed your link to Engensus. At first I thought wow what a cool idea. Form a company to help political bodies better understand hurricanes and help the community build better structures to reduce future damage.

    On their website they note this—

    Who do you work with?
    We work with a variety of organizations, from architects and engineers to risk managers and government entities.

    But then I ran across this bit of work by the boys at Engensus which I didn’t find on their website. Despite their having a place for research links done by their team. I suggest they place this on their website—

    “Members of Engensus have been retained as expert consultants and witnesses by law firms representing insurance companies in several such disputes.”

    Then I saw this on a site offering an industry workshop.

    Sponsors of the event were Risk Management Solutions and Engensus Engineering Consulting


    Oh well.

    I was wondering who the industry was going to get to replace Tim Marshall.

  6. Thanks Edtilla. Please keep us informed. This is as much an opportunity as a problem. Good luck.

  7. Yes, Steve, this is an opportunity thank you very much.

    The general public is hardly aware of the Water Wars developing amongst competing Business Interests in this country.
    The Crux of that Biscuit is Weather Modeling, to wit: Hurricane/Storm Surge Modeling… like, for example, Hurricane Pam.
    The Corps Of Course uses their own modeling systems.

    This is complicated at the very least by the sheer size of some of the players: ASCECORPS Titan VP (Gerald Galloway), NFIP, and of course the slabbers’ bitch: Insurance.

    I hope you smart people can help suss this out the way you do. Slab it to Hell.
    Speaking of…Hell,
    even the Reverend Moon has something to offer that the TP failed to mention, the 600 Ton Gorilla MRGO :
    [Mr. van Heerden said he was fired because LSU officials sought to silence him. He said his firing also may be related to a pending trial of the Army Corps of Engineers about flooding caused by the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.
    Dr. van Heerden may testify at the trial.]
    Katrina levee critic handed
    demotion~Conservative Daily
    Washington Times

    And here is a video interview with Dr. van Heerden from WBRZ:

    Did I say there is a Strong Rumor of Public Protest this coming week? I would Suspect might know something… Iiiiiii aaaain’t sayin’nothin… but perhaps we should check in wit’dem? Jus’sayin…
    This is why we train. This is why we practice. This is how we play to win.
    One finga’say one thing.
    Two finga’say V…
    V for Vigilance.
    V for Vendetta.
    V for Victory.
    V for Peace.
    T’anks Youz,

  8. The truth is that most university business schools and engineering schools rig their research for corporate money.
    State Farm’s expert witness in the Broussard case was an engineering professor from the U. of Florida whose Katrina report was garbage.
    The Risk Management Center of the famous Wharton School at the famous U. of Pennsylvania may as well be a subsidiary of the Insurance Information Institute.
    The Mississippi State University’s annual insurance conference is all propaganda.
    And so on.

  9. It’s not just business and engineering schools that rig their research Brian, not by a long shot!

    Just look at what happened after Katrina. These university affiliated entities are a Trojan Horse.

  10. Poor Rob Young didn’t have a clue to the buzz saw he was running into here at Slabbed. Follow the money and it will lead you to the truth.

    If you look back carefully at comments left here through time you’ll see Ivor van Heerden pops up here with some regularity.

    The Sun Herald ran a story around a year ago quoting van Heerden who attributed several feet of the storm surge on the Ms Gulf Coast to the Mississippi River levees. I’ll be honest and say I didn’t cover it for “geopolitical” reasons but it was obvious to me back then this guy is unable to tell a lie or candy coat what he thought. When I was in college we called that type of person an excellent professor.

    I know Rob Young still checks in with us. Perhaps he’ll now better understand why his piece was viewed with a good bit of skepticism in March. I got Rob on my email list for after the 15th.


  11. When you email him Sop, let him know I still want to read those papers…Since he disappeared from my view, I’ve wondered if he, too, was going to testify in MRGO – and for which side of the dispute.

  12. Oh, by the way, we had good ole Dr. Amoroso in a State Farm case. The guy look about 15 years old, is very dry, but seemed very out of his element as a structural engineer doing hurricane work. When I say “out of his element”, I mean that unless the house is gone a structural engineer can tell you whether or not the house is structurally sound, but many times cannot tell you anything else.

    In the case we had, Amoroso actually agreed with our expert to a certain extent, and for the only time in almost 4 years of Katrina litigation, State Farm tendered additional money after he as State Farm’s expert, opined that additional, uncompensated losses occured to the clients’ home. By the way, the clients’ home was 7,000 square feet and insured for $950,000.00. The original SF adjuster did his inspection in 30 minutes and recommended payment of around $20,000.00.

    Another issue that arose relative to Amoroso, was Engensus’ business plan. State Farm along with Amorose squealed like pigs about giving it up. We believed the plan would should that Amoroso and company created Engensus for the sole purpose of securing insurance company business. We filed a Motion seekign production of the business plan and before the Order could be issued, the case settled for very, very good money.

  13. NRB, you have to obtain a report of all income to UNO (grants are not given to individuals) by funding source.

    Then, you have to research the funding sources of grants for purposes related to your interest.

    Not easy. Grant could be direct but it’s more likely pass through from another entity.

    Even when you track that down, you still have to make connection to the “good doctor” and sometimes that requires researching all spending from a grant – including spending of any matching funds or related grants.

  14. I’ve already sent the following E-mail to the LSU Alumni Association and Chancellor MIke Martin. I’d suggest that all alumni follow a similar course of action.

    I make a couple of points, but the letter builds up to the van Heerden debacle.


    I graduated from the University in 1984, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. I chose LSU because it was home and, in 1979, it was affordable for a family of blue-collar means.

    My tenure at the University coincided with an era of underfunding and scant resources, but then again, couldn’t most grads’ tenures there be described similarly? When I was matriculating through the J-school, I really came to appreciate — for one example — the merits of the Underwood manual typewriter.

    They really made good products in the 1950s, don’t you think?

    Likewise, I became well familiar with all the tricks of putting out a newspaper just like the fictional Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns did . . . in the 1930s. Fortunately, some skills — like newswriting and copy editing — transcend technology, and I was taught by some true masters of the craft.

    That is, before they got fired amid a feeding frenzy of departmental politics.

    Still, on balance, I felt I received a fine education at the Ol’ War Skule . . . a thorough, balanced liberal-arts education. And I have to admit to being proud, until recently, of being a Tiger alumnus.

    That was then. Now is another matter.

    My problem now is that I try to keep up, from my Omaha home, with the goings-on in my hometown, Baton Rouge. It’s true what they say — ignorance *is* bliss.

    If it weren’t for that damned Internet, I’d be blissfully ignorant that the pittance I’ve been able to contribute to the alumni association was merely a case of throwing good money after bad — that I, an old grad here in Nebraska, was willing to throw his money at a school that the people and government of Louisiana are perfectly willing to cut to the bone the second times get tight. (As if it were not already the sad case that funding the University just to the regional *average* is considered cause to praise God and sing “Happy Days Are Here Again.”)

    Bottom line, if actual Louisianians don’t give a flying fig about their OWN higher-ed system, why the hell should I, a Nebraskan of 20-plus years who has no plans to move back to Louisiana? *Really, why?*

    Here in Nebraska, we have our own fine state university system which generally receives adequate funding in both good times and in bad.

    Yes, there is a tight budget in hard times. No, Nebraska’s state government doesn’t eviscerate higher ed in order to fully fund the constitutionally protected Hog Slop Inspection Board or some lege’s Very Important Slush Fund.

    Thus, in economic hard times, I find it impossible to justify an annual contribution to LSU when that money could be going to my wife’s alma mater, the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, which A) is here and benefits us directly and B) has a fighting damn chance because Nebraskans generally care and their government generally works.

    Once again . . . if actual Louisianians don’t give a damn about their own flagship university, why the hell should a Nebraskan like me?

    That, however, wasn’t the final straw for me.

    The final straw — the reason I now am deeply *ashamed* to be an LSU alum — is the recent contract non-renewal of Dr. Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center.

    I’m sorry, now the FORMER deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center, effective immediately.

    This is a story I’ve been following (via The New York Times, the Times-Picayune and other sources) for about three years now. I know that the University tried to muzzle Dr. van Heerden when he was critical of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of his leadership of the “Team Louisiana” investigation into levee breaches during Hurricane Katrina.

    I know this was because University officials were terrified LSU would lose federal grants because of Dr. van Heerden’s plain speaking, which, incidentally, happened to be absolutely supported by the science of the matter.

    I know that, in effect, Dr. van Heerden was a marked man and that the University now has made good on its implicit threats to his employment. In the process, I fear the University’s blatant prostitution of its integrity and its public-service obligation to the people of Louisiana for a few federal grants will utterly destroy the Hurricane Center — a valuable resource for Louisiana and the world *and* an outreach of the University that’s garnered worldwide acclaim and favorable press for LSU.

    This is shameful, underhanded and — frankly — despicable. Only in Louisiana could the state’s premier university hound, then fire, a “hero of Katrina” for basically doing his job too damned well.

    If some petty dolt gets his nose out of joint and fires Les Miles for making the Southeastern Conference mad by winning too many league championships, no one is hurt in any real way. Well . . . at least apart from the gullible boosters who’d be called upon to buy out the coach’s humongous contract.

    But when some petty University dolt blows up one of the best things LSU has going for it — all because a deputy director has been zealous in looking out for the interests of coastal Louisianians — you are blowing up something citizens and officials depend upon in life-and-death matters. In that eventuality, people may well end up paying for the University’s stupidity with their lives.

    What a fine mess Louisiana finds itself in: Louisianians don’t care to properly fund their flagship university, which then becomes so desperate for funds that it sells itself

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