Levees Not War
National Security Begins at Home

Interview with Ivor van Heerden, author of ‘The Storm:
What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina:
The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist’


Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan

Viking, 2006 • $25.95
paperback $15.00

IVOR VAN HEERDEN of the LSU Hurricane Center is familiar to millions who watched the Katrina news reports as the straight-talking hurricane expert with a Dutch accent (actually he’s South African). In The Storm, he has written a detailed, analytical, and compelling account of Hurricane Katrina and its terrible impact on Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. He shows what happened-and what didn’t have to happen.

What sets The Storm apart from other Katrina books is that van Heerden, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, goes on to propose a workable and affordable plan for Category 5 strength storm protection, modeled on the Netherlands’ successful system: a combination of reinforced levees, storm gates, and coastal restoration, including barrier islands.

On the publication of The Storm, we asked Dr. van Heerden to elaborate on some of his principal concerns about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers’ repair of the levees around New Orleans, and his hopes for political solutions to Louisiana’s environmental predicament.

Ivor van Heerden: I think what Hurricanes Rita and Katrina taught us and certainly we know from our computer modeling is that the whole of coastal Louisiana is super-susceptible to storm surges. In some ways New Orleans did dodge the bullet, because if Katrina had come west of the city and had slowed down just a little, she could have flooded the whole city. I mention in the book that Nature in some ways has given us a second chance, and this time we’ve got to get it right. The other thing is that the old system of doing business, however you look at it, whether it was building levees or whether it was restoring coastal wetlands; the old system didn’t work, and unfortunately we don’t see anything new right now. The Senate said we need a new version of FEMA, but nobody’s saying we need a new version of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is to my mind what we do need.

[ Historically, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has had primary responsibility for large public works of navigation and public safety on the nation’s major waterways. In The Storm, van Heerden recommends opening up the decision-making to include scientists, engineers, and conservationists.]

What can be done, or what can be attempted, to loosen the Corps of Engineers’ grip on all the projects in the United States?

Ivor: Enough of a public outcry, and certainly if need be, perhaps a U.S. Senate investigation into the Corps. I know Senator Lieberman and another senator are proposing legislation that would rein in some of the activities of the Corps. The bottom line is, civil works projects like levees are long-term projects, but the Corps’ management is extremely short-term. The colonels come and the colonels go. And if you think about Colonel Richard Wagenaar, the present chief of the New Orleans district, he’s having to clean up somebody else’s mess and before you know it he will be off and we will have another rookie running the New Orleans District.

Hadn’t he just started a few weeks before Katrina hit?

Ivor: Yes, and he’s an absolute gentleman, but the bottom line is, as soon as he’s picked up enough corporate knowledge to know what’s going on, he’s going to be gone. We’ve really got to come up with a civil works administration. What I’ve been proposing is a structure that is put under the Department of Commerce, because civil works are an important part of the economy. And you then have to set up a long-term management approach, then you can take a long-term look at projects, you can prioritize. And at the same time, the Corps survives on earmarks you’ve got to remove earmarks from the process completely. . . . By earmarks I mean various congressmen’s pet projects, such as that Alaskan Bridge to Nowhere. Oftimes a congressman gets his pet project funded by slipping it in at the last minute into some bit of legislation. Another word for it is pork. So you can’t have an agency surviving on pork. You’ve got to have long-term goals and the civil works administration needs to develop a sustainable plan for the future . . .

One of the things we see here and certainly we’ve learned from the Dutch is that you’ve got to have external review of the designs of your system. And in many cases we need to be putting these large-scale projects out for design competitions, just as you would if you were building a skyscraper, and in that way we can get the best engineering and science. What happens right now is that with a number of the companies the Corps works with; the principals are former Corps employees. So a bad idea can be perpetuated for a long, long time.

When we talked back in February you expressed concern about possible cover-ups of both the reason for the levees’ catastrophic failure, and then secondly, cover-ups or trying to mask the inadequate quality of the repairs being done. Has your view on that changed at all?

Ivor: Yes, what we’ve seen on the repairs, and especially the areas that were concerning us, the Corps has heard us, they’ve heard the guys from Berkeley [Drs. Raymond Seed and Robert Bea investigating for the National Science Foundation], and they’ve come and as far as we can tell they’ve removed the sand and sandy silts, and used high-quality clays along most of the MR-GO. Along the Jefferson St. Charles [parish] boundary where they used the I-walls that sagged so badly, they’re shoring it up with soils and with sheet piling. Overall the levee repairs are robust, that would be the best way to put it. In terms of what went wrong [in Katrina], I think between Team Louisiana and the Berkeley guys, we’ve shown exactly what went wrong, exposed the flaws in the design; the lack of accounting for the very weak soils; ignoring the latest science in sticking to a 1959 definition of a Standard Project (design) Hurricane . . .

Does the Corps appear to be willing to learn from its mistakes and to show a little flexibility or cooperation with the outside world?

Ivor: What we’ve seen is that the planning’s being done in a vacuum. We’ve been told by a senior governor’s political appointee that Team Louisiana cannot participate in the planning.

Was that political appointee happy about this, or not? About Team Louisiana not being able to have input into the planning?

Ivor: It sounded like he was making the decision. The unfortunate thing is that there is some politics, still that hasn’t gone away, the reason being that we’re still working with the old system. We’ve got to change it.

The other day I was talking with two of Donald Powell’s staffers you know, Bush’s rebuilding czar. He could actually become the reconstruction czar. We could set up a Tennessee Valley Authority like program, and we could tell the Corps we want this kind of thing constructed in this area, and so on. The Corps has the ability to let big contracts and manage big contracts. But get the design away from them, and also the management of the money, and put it under some kind of czar who’s advised by a blue-ribbon panel of engineers and scientists. The same organization could have a National Levee Review Team who would go around and inspect levees throughout the country. Because what New Orleans has taught us, and as pointed out by the American Society of Civil Engineers, is that it’s not only New Orleans’s levees that we need to be concerned about. There are levees elsewhere, like around Sacramento.

Were Powell’s deputies receptive?

Ivor: They were listening carefully. I could see I was making my point. We’ve either got to do that, or better still with a longer-term view it’s probably healthier to set up a civil works administration in the Department of Commerce. Take the best of the Corps, restaff it, make sure it’s very well connected with academic engineering and natural science research programs the new administration has to have the absolute best data input. Set up review boards, set up design competitions, and come up with long-term strategies.

The problem with the New Orleans levees was that they were never a high priority for the Corps’ New Orleans district. Their high priorities were navigation and dredging. And they never really seemed to have a long-term strategy of how they were going to get it done; the project kept slipping, the costs kept going up . . . And you get a new colonel every three years. It may take him a year and a half to even find out the ins and outs of the various district projects. The bottom line is, because he’s new, he’s learning from his own staff. By the time he may realize that he’s not getting the right or best information from his staff his tenure is virtually over.

The solution is not the military. The military fights wars. It shouldn’t be running civil works.

Just because it has been, historically, since the 1820s, doesn’t mean it has to be now.

Ivor: It’s definitely time for a change.


This Monday, the 22nd [May], the Berkeley guys [Raymond Seed and Robert Bea] are doing a press announcement in New Orleans of the release of their interim report to the National Science Foundation. And then Team Louisiana will release our final report at the end of June. We have new data that we’re working up, and analysis of the reasons for the levees’ failure, and recommendations for the future. [Team Louisiana was set up by Secretary Johnny Bradberry of the Louisiana Department of Transport and Development and consists of LSU scientists and three retired engineers with about 150 years of experience between them. This team is conducting the state’s forensic investigation into why the levees failed.]

Are they using T-walls at all, or is it mostly I-walls? [T-walls, planted with the T upside-down, are much stronger-rooted, harder to topple than I walls]

Ivor: Most of the repairs are being done with T-walls.

So they’re actually digging down, pulling out what was there, and inserting a T-wall?

Ivor: Yes.

It sounds like in some ways, even though the overall levee system, the three hundred and fifty miles’ worth of levees were degraded by Katrina, it sounds like in some ways it’s going to be better than it was before. Do you think so?

Ivor: The situation is, it takes only one wall monolith to fail; to sink the city. While the repairs are robust, there are many many many miles of levees that are in a compromised condition, and all the I-walls are suspect.

The bottom line is, we don’t have any higher level of protection than we had before Katrina. If we get another Katrina we will see flooding in the city. That’s all there is to it. We basically have Category 2 protection. Part of the reason for putting that big-picture plan in the book [chapter 11, Now or Never] was to get the debate going. If we don’t head in that direction, if we get another Katrina or anything stronger, we might have to just switch the lights off and go.

So it’s absolutely critical that we start now and we come up with a consensual plan and we start building the necessary components, starting with the essential or the most critical works right away.


Ivor: To me the two things you’ve got to do right away are put a structure in the Rigolets Pass [between Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf] and a structure in the funnel [where the Intracoastal Waterway and MR-GO canals converge]. The next thing would be the levees on the West Bank. You hire experts who can do the risk and probability analyses, and you use those to help you make the decisions, just the way the Dutch did. And also, once you understand the risks and probabilities, you have an understanding of how high you’ve got to make the levees, and so on.

If you think about the efforts that the Corps has put in in the last year 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.

And then you’d include diversion of the river, selective diversion?

Ivor: Selective diversions, as many diversions as you could get. The Mississippi River built coastal Louisiana, and we’ve got to get the Mississippi River back to doing what it used to do. We also need to substantially rebuild our barrier island chains.

Do you think that at a certain point below New Orleans, perhaps after I don’t know Arabi, Chalmette, Violet? that, at a certain point, all human habitation has to be surrendered, and just let it flood?

Ivor: No. Parts of lower Plaquemines would potentially be surrendered; you wouldn’t build the levees to give them Cat 5 protection. But Chalmette, Arabi, all those areas could well be protected with the right kind of levee system, especially if you put your primary defense along the Forty Arpent Canal levee [on higher, more solid land, closer to the settlements of Chalmette and Arabi] instead of the MR-GO levee.

I foresee that some communities would have to be abandoned, and one potentially good idea in Plaquemines is to remove portions of the levees along the Mississippi River, because those levees are responsible for exacerbating the surge. And if they weren’t there then the surge wouldn’t have gone up so high and the flooding during Katrina would have been less severe. As I point out in my book, Mississippi’s severe flooding may have resulted from the surge dome that built up against the artificial levees along the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish. . . .

It sounds like from a certain distance south, downriver from the city, the levees just need to be blown, and just let it spread out.

Ivor: Yeah. There are two things. One is, it means you wouldn’t pile up and exacerbate the surge against the artificial river levees. The second thing is, when the river comes down and floods, the sediment would be spread over a very wide area, and you’d restart the natural delta-building process.

Which we have to have. Don’t you also talk about a diversion of the Mississippi south of Baton Rouge to flow some of it over toward Bayou Lafourche?

Ivor: Yes, to use a section of Bayou Lafourche as a conduit and then the potential of using some of the former courses of Bayou Lafourche in the lower parts of Terrebonne Parish similarly. Getting sediment out of the Mississippi is crucial.

You know, coastal Louisiana is an engineered landscape, and we’ve just got to engineer it differently. And instead of pushing all the sediment and fresh water out deep into the Gulf, we need to get it out to the wetlands and marshes, and that’s going to require diversions and siphons, removing levees in some places, but that’s what we’re going to have to do.

What is your sense of the political will to do the things that need to be done to do even half the things that need to be done. Are you somewhat encouraged?

Ivor: If we can’t even get the planning effort sorted out . . . If you’re going to go and get the money from Congress, you’ve got to have one plan that the majority of people have bought into, it’s got to be a scientific and engineeringly sensible plan. You’ve got to have the stakeholders along. And you don’t achieve that by being politically selective about who participates in the planning and who doesn’t.

What about the federal will to help?

Ivor: I don’t see it right now, but part of the reason is because the state hasn’t come up with a plan.

So there is some truth to what the feds have said, that Louisiana hasn’t proposed a plan?

Ivor: I think when the state comes up with one sensible plan and goes to Congress and talks with one voice, then there’s a chance in getting something funded, but we haven’t succeeded on that part. When we tried to get funding from Congress through the CARA bill; just at the point where the vote was going to happen we had a consortium of businessmen say the first so many billions of dollars are going to go to creating a port down in southeast Louisiana, and the way this fits into CARA is that the port will be behind a big barrier island. And then we had the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources going around telling everybody you’ll be able to use the money for sewerage and roads and so. So we’re our own worst enemies. Instead of sticking to the plan we allow others to use this as an opportunity to push their agenda. The result was that even the environmental groups were advising Congress not to vote for the bill. [The 1998 Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) was an oil and gas revenue-sharing bill that has stalled in the Senate. In 2000 the House of Representatives passed CARA by a vote of 315 to 102, and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved it by 13 to 7. Sixty-three senators signed a letter to the Senate majority and minority leaders urging that the bill be brought to a vote on the Senate floor, but, six years later, the bill has not been brought to the floor for a vote.]

Who in particular in the state government needs to be prodded to get such a plan developed?

Ivor: The governor is in charge, and she or he, whoever it is next time round needs to take charge. The Louisiana Recovery Authority is doing a great job, but the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority seems like it’s become a political animal. . . . You’re not going to get anywhere if you just do the same old stuff. What’s going to happen, they’ll put a plan together and academia will shoot it down, and then environmental groups will shoot it down and citizens’ groups will shoot it down, and we’ve gotten nowhere. . . .

So we need to press on the governor’s office to focus on a definite plan that can be presented to the federal government to get behind, and we need to urge them to welcome the contributions of the LSU people, the local geologists and scientists, conservationists, and try to keep the politicians and lobbyists out of it. You were saying in your book that if you get the right the right people together, in a week they could come up with a definite plan that would work.

Ivor: The situation is you’ve got a bunch of people in the state planning efforts (many of them are Corps employees who still claim it was overtopping not breaching) who don’t have the qualifications to be doing the comprehensive planning. And some people who do [have the qualifications] are being excluded from the process. And it’s all about political control that’s what it’s all about. So we aren’t getting anywhere. I keep trying to warn people, we are as unsafe as we were before Katrina; nothing has changed.

[ EDITOR’S NOTE: The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, commonly known as MR-GO, was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s. MR-GO is not used as much by industrial shipping as its early boosters promised, and it is dangerous in hurricanes because it converges with the Intracoastal Waterway to form a funnel that directs storm surges from Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain directly at the heart of the Orleans Parish bowl enclosed by levees. The sandy MR-GO levees suffered massive breaches under Katrina, adding to the floodwaters that swamped St. Bernard Parish as well as the famous Lower Ninth Ward.]

Is there any chance of closing MR-GO? People in Louisiana (other than businesses) want it shut down.

Ivor: The state needs to make a decision and do it. It’s been an argument for years and years and years, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be resolved any time soon. We’ve got to say, What’s best for everybody? What’s best for the greater good? The problem is that nobody’s doing that. Nobody’s asking what’s best for the greater good. Everybody’s saying I want my piece. I want to be taken care of. And that’s not going to work. You’ve got to ultimately say what’s best for the greater good of everybody? And then set up that system.

Buy The Storm from Amazon.com or from the publisher, Penguin.

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