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Restore the Wetlands. Reinforce the Levees.

Campaign to Save Ivor van Heerden’s Post at LSU


Click this video to see testimonies to the critical work of Ivor van Heerden by such experts and friends as John Barry, Dr. Marc Levitan, Harry Shearer, Sandy Rosenthal, Mtangulizi Sanyika, Jed Horne, and Dr. Oliver Houck.

There is a chance—and here there’s a strong hope—that LSU hurricane expert and experienced gadfly / whistle-blower Ivor van Heerden may be able to keep his position at LSU, currently set to expire on May 21. (The university decided last year that it would not renew his contract.) U.S. District Judge James Brady has denied Van Heerden’s request for a temporary restraining order to compel LSU to rehire him when the contract expires, but the judge has agreed to hear a motion on a preliminary injunction that would require the university to rehire him on May 19, before his contract expires. Ivor has said that Judge Brady’s agreement to allow an injunction trial indicates there may be reasonable grounds for preserving his job.

Van Heerden contends that LSU is firing him—and has downgraded the LSU Hurricane Center that he co-founded and served as deputy director—because his criticism of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina endangers LSU’s ability to bring in lucrative federal research grants. Click here (and see below) for our open letter to LSU Chancellor Michael Martin urging the university administration to retain this invaluable scientist and dedicated protector of Louisiana, its delicate landscape and infrastructure, its people and culture. As Harry Shearer asks in the video above, how is it fair that the one person to lose his job after Hurricane Katrina is a committed scientist who warned repeatedly that the state’s coastal defenses and flood protection infrastructure were vulnerable?

Our always active friends at Levees.org (no relation) have initiated a campaign to help Dr. van Heerden’s cause by nominating him for the LSU Chancellor’s Award. Wouldn’t that be sweet? An e-mail from Levees.org says:

The Chancellor’s Sesquicentennial Service Award program seeks to honor individuals or groups who have gone beyond the scope of their job or organizational requirements to contribute their time and talents to LSU and/or the community in ways that benefit the common good.

Deadline is April 30, 2010.

Your nomination would be a significant show of support for the man who consistently provided south Louisiana residents with accurate hurricane surge information in advance of storms.

Click here to nominate Dr. van Heerden.

Please, read our letter to Chancellor Martin below, and vote today. Thank you.

Click here for Levees Not War’s interview with Ivor van Heerden upon the publication of his gripping account of Hurricane Katrina, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina: The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist. Here’s an “appetizer”:

If you think about the efforts that the Corps has put in in the last year [2006], they’ve had all these different construction teams, they’re constructing gates, they’re doing this and that . . . They’ve rebuilt miles and miles of earthen levee. Well, just imagine if that sort of activity just continued for the next ten years, we’d have everything we wanted. None of this is impossible to do. We have all this levee activity going right now; just keep it going with the necessary components to come up with, in essence, Category 5 protection! And it has to include the wetlands. You can’t achieve this without the wetlands.

Also, check out NOVA’s interview with van Heerden, “The Man Who Knew,” from the PBS film “The Storm That Drowned a City.”


An Open Letter to LSU Chancellor Mike Martin Re: The van Heerden Affair

April 27, 2009

Chancellor Mike Martin
Office of the Chancellor
156 Thomas Boyd Hall
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70803

Dear Chancellor Martin:

As an alumnus of LSU and as the founder of LeveesNotWar.org, I am writing to protest the “slow-motion firing” of Ivor van Heerden and the gutting of the LSU Hurricane Center and its Public Health Center. Please, Chancellor Martin, reverse these reckless acts of political retribution. (I understand you were not aware of the firing until afterward, but as chancellor you have the authority to step in and right the wrong.) Please bring back Marc Levitan, renew Dr. van Heerden’s contract, restore his teaching and other former responsibilities, and give Levitan and van Heerden the leeway to revive the Hurricane Center—including the irreplaceable Public Health Center—without further delay. Hurricanes aren’t going away.

As an activist group that promotes robust rebuilding of Louisiana’s flood protection systems, Levees Not War has benefited greatly from Dr. van Heerden’s guidance in conversations and interviews. He has been generous with his time—a teacher in the true sense of the word. We have come to rely on his honesty and care for his beloved state of Louisiana and its people, a devotion we share. We have also benefited from reading and rereading his book The Storm. Through his knowledge of geology and engineering and coastal restoration and his decades of dedication to Louisiana by serving on countless committees such as Team Louisiana he is an essential state resource, a treasury of knowledge and courage whom the state should be empowering, not punishing. In his science-based critiques of faulty Army Corps of Engineers designs (the Corps is not his only target) he is doing his duty for public safety. And how is he rewarded?

We understand a school must make some allowances for political relationships and federal funding considerations, and we know a gadfly’s criticisms can be annoying. Also, Levees Not War is essentially friendly to the Corps—we want them to be well funded and to “be all they can be” (tho’ not all-powerful). But this firing is clearly a fulfillment of former chancellor Sean O’Keefe’s threat to fire van Heerden if he served as a witness in the MR-GO lawsuit. LSU had already stripped away his teaching duties, reduced his Hurricane Center responsibilities, limited his contact with the media, and publicly belittled his expertise as a critic of the Corps.

By this obviously political maneuver, LSU makes itself and the state look very “banana republic” in the eyes of the world, reversing hard-won gains in prestige and damaging the university’s fund-raising prospects. (We would have expected the administration would at least respect this aspect of the affair.) If LSU drives out an internationally respected scientist and downgrades the Hurricane Center purely for political reasons, then it is not serious about being a top-tier university. Do you and your vice chancellors not realize what an alarming signal this sends to all faculty and to any prospective applicants? It sounds an alarm, too, for Louisianans who expect their state’s institutions to protect the public—and defend professors who call attention to risks to public safety.

The LSU Hurricane Center, too, has been an immense asset for public safety, a local complement to the National Hurricane Center. For LSU to downgrade the Center from a $1 million budget at the time of Katrina to zero today shows a shocking disregard of public safety and contempt for academic integrity.

Chancellor Martin, the university and the governor too should reward Ivor van Heerden with honors and additional funding for the LSU Hurricane Center he co-founded, rather than punish him and the Center with a relentless campaign of “death by a thousand cuts.” You know, for their investigation of the levee failures in Hurricane Katrina, the University of California rewarded engineering professors Bob Bea and Ray Seed with honors and a $20 million research center. The contrast in Louisiana—the state most directly affected by Katrina—is heartbreaking and truly makes us fear for the future. “Shoot the messenger” is not a prescription for survival or for academic excellence.

Mr. Martin, please put public safety before politics: Bring back Dr. Levitan, retain Dr. van Heerden, and restore and expand the Hurricane Center to meet the perils facing Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Lord knows we need all the help we can get.

Yours sincerely,

Mark LaFlaur
Founder, LeveesNotWar.org

David Constant, Dean of the College of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Charles A. Wilson, Executive Vice Chancellor and Vice Provost
Brooks Keel, Vice Chancellor, Research and Economic Development
Robert R. Twilley, Associate Vice Chancellor, Research and Economic Development
Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana
Mary L. Landrieu, Senator of Louisiana
David Vitter, Senator of Louisiana
Garret Graves, Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities
R. King Milling, Chairman, America’s Wetland Foundation

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2 Responses to “Campaign to Save Ivor van Heerden’s Post at LSU”

  1. Rosemary James Says:

    Dear Chancellor Martin:
    Ivor Van Heerden’s contributions to the state are enormous. The very idea that he would be relieved of his duties at the LSU Hurricane Center and that the Center would be reduced to a line-item in the budget with no funding is shocking.

    Whatever happened to integrity in academia?

    I was a journalist for many years, first for The Times-Picayune Corporation’s former afternoon newspaper the States-Item and later for WWL-TV. The river, port, levees and the oil industry were among the subjects I covered. After leaving journalism, I served on the first Louisiana Coastal Commisison. I also worked with a lobbying team that attempted to get Congress to raise levees in Eastern New Orleans.

    I have for many years believed that the policies of the Corps of Engineers were horribly flawed, especially with regard to putting needs of navigation and the oil industry ahead of the environment and public safety. The whole terrible business with the Mississippi River – Gulf Outlet, which opened New Orleans to horrific flooding, while destroying hundreds of miles of wetlands, is but one example of devastation wrought by the flawed Corps of Engineers policies. And it never came close to producing the kind of commercial port success envisioned and promised to the public by its proponents.

    Of course, corseting the Mississippi River all the way to the mouth of the river with levees, is the most destructive policy of all, the policy which doomed Louisiana’s coastal delta and barrier islands, resulting in such severe coastal erosion that New Orleans is now far more vulnerable to flooding than before the levees were built. Allowing the oil industry to cut pipeline construction canals through the wetlands and not requiring that these canals be filled is yet another disastrous policy of the Corps of Engineers.

    It has been well known for years that the Corps of Engineers has put the State of Louisiana and its primary city at risk by its navigation policies. While I never agreed with what the Corps of Engineers has been doing, however, it never once occurred to me before Katrina and the valuable work done by Ivor Van Heerden and his University of California colleagues in the aftermath that the Corps of Engineers did not even know how to build levees that would not fail under hurricane stress or that they were not conducting proper construction and post construction inspections.

    It gives me and most of the people I know living South Louisana nightmares to know that the Corps of Engineers having put us at such terrible risk with its navigation policies, is not even capable of building levees that will withstand severe hurricane stress and properly inspecting the levees they have built. I don’t, for instance, have any confidence in their post-Katrina claims that the Mississippi River levees are safe, that they will never fail. Talented, professional engineers have told me that the kind of rigorous underwater inspections needed to ensure that levee foundations are not being undermined simply are not being carried out on a desirable schedule.

    As a result of the disastrous policies of the Corps of Engineers, the Gulf of Mexico is now lapping practically at our doors with nothing to protect us from levee over-topping and levee failure.

    A small but significant sign:

    When I moved to New Orleans in 1964, you never, ever saw seagulls in New Orleans. Now seagulls understand, if people don’t, that, thanks to the Corps of Engineers, New Orleans is the coastline. Flocks of seagulls are hanging out daily now at Woldenberg Park on the river and some even nest in the garden behind St. Louis Cathedral.

    Given the unconscionable treatment the administrators of LSU have accorded Ivan Van Heerden, frankly, I do not understand why he would want to have anything to do with LSU.

    The issue here, as far as I am concerned, however, is how LSU is spending our tax dollars.

    I personally am appalled, that my tax dollars are going to an institution which does not value issues of public safety and education in the liberal arts fields (recent cuts in liberal arts departments are deplorable). An institution that deserves to call itself a university should value and reward the accomplishments of its scientists and should value the teaching of the arts and language at least as much, preferably more, than it values football.

    I am appalled that my tax dollars are going to an institution which punishes truth telling and in the process makes itself and so the state, one more time, a laughing stock in the world at large.

    Rosemary James

  2. Levees Not War Says:

    Thank you, Rosemary. This is a strong letter. -ML

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