Levees Not War
Infrastructure. Environment. Peace.

Posts Tagged ‘Ivor van heerden’

When Harry Met a Cover-Up:
Shearer Talks about “The Big Uneasy”

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

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[ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

We sat down recently with Harry Shearer—that is, we sat down and e-mailed him some questions, and he sat down and wrote some thoughtful replies—to talk about his new film The Big Uneasy, which tells the real story of why New Orleans flooded in Hurricane Katrina. (Click here for the trailer.) Here’s a brief sample:

Q. You’ve said that in President Obama’s 3-hour “drive-through” appearance in New Orleans in October 2009, he used the phrase “natural disaster,” and that that is what prompted you to make this film. Is anyone learning that Katrina itself did not flood the city, but that the levees’ failure is what flooded the city?

Shearer: Very few, very slowly. People sometimes make reference to the levee failure in passing, as if it’s a natural result of a storm like Katrina. But there still seems to be quite low awareness of the conclusion of the two independent investigations that, absent a badly-designed and -built “protection system,” the worst Katrina would have inflicted on New Orleans would have been “wet ankles.”

Q. Had you thought of making a film on this subject before the president’s remarks triggered you? (Somewhere we saw a mention that the idea had occurred to you at the Rising Tide 4 conference, and that you posed the idea but nobody responded and so it was up to you?)

Shearer: No, I don’t recall giving serious thought to it, though I may have mentioned at RT that wresting back control of the narrative of the city’s near-destruction might have required somebody to do such a film. But I’d really not thought of myself as that somebody until I heard the President say something that he patently should have known was not true.

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Before we continue with the interview, we want to talk a bit about the film. You may not have seen it because it does not yet have a distributor. Harry is working on that. Thus far it has been shown in New Orleans at the Prytania Theater uptown (it premiered before the Rising Tide conference in late August near the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina), and it has run briefly in New York City and Los Angeles. We saw it twice at Manhattan’s IFC  Center (as shown) and want to do all we can to spread the word about this excellent project—particularly to people with connections to film distributors with a social and political conscience.

Leave It to a Jester to Tell the Truth

Harry Shearer is famous as a versatile humorist, writer, and “voice artist” for The Simpsons and as Derek Smalls, the bearded Ringo-like bass player in This Is Spinal Tap, so at first it may not seem that a movie about the flooding of New Orleans would be his natural subject matter. How funny can it be to explain the catastrophic engineering failure that led to the flooding of 80 percent of the city and hundreds of deaths (if not more)? Although The Big Uneasy won’t have audiences rolling in the aisles, this compelling and richly sourced new documentary does clarify the facts about the disaster-within-a-disaster. Misconceptions are corrected. Cover-ups are uncovered. Truths are told. Acts of professional courage are held up to the light.

Shearer’s comic talent is for real, but his seriousness is authentic, too, as anyone knows who has read his Huffington Post blog pieces over the past several years or listened to his weekly radio program Le Show (KCRW, Los Angeles). He explains in the opening reel that he is a part-time New Orleanian. Through his work with Levees.org (no relation) and his blogging and other efforts he has helped keep the spotlight on his adopted city’s predicament with a commitment and persistence that should earn him some kind of Honorary Full-Time Citizenship award. You’ll understand why when you see The Big Uneasy.

In a recent post on HuffPo Shearer acknowledged that it’s ironic that “a damn comedy actor” should be taking up the untold story:

. . . the story that the flooding was a man-made catastrophe that developed over four and a half decades under administrations of both parties, and the story from a whistleblower inside the Corps of Engineers that the “new, improved” system for protecting New Orleans may right now be fatally flawed. . . . given that lapse among the professional journalists, it was up to a damn comedy actor to piece together the material that’s been sitting there, on the public record, all this time . . .

A review in New York magazine by David Edelstein said it well:

By the end of The Big Uneasy, I came to appreciate [Shearer’s] self-effacement. He’s not a filmmaker or an investigative journalist. He’s not really in his element here. He just, finally, couldn’t stand by and hear “natural disaster” one more time without picking up a camera and, like his protagonists, doing his civic duty for the city he loves so deeply.

Get This: The Flooding Was Not a Natural Disaster

The Big Uneasy is a feature film–length documentary about how and why New Orleans was flooded during Hurricane Katrina. It happened not because Katrina was so overwhelming: although it had been a Category 5 storm in the Gulf, Katrina was only about a Category 1.5 hurricane when it blew past (not straight through) New Orleans, sparing the city the brunt of the storm. The city flooded because of engineering failures in the federally built levees and walls of outflow canals that gave way under pressure even before the storm’s winds did their worst. The film draws on engineers’ reports, postmortem studies, and never-before-seen amateur video footage to show the flooding was not a natural but a man-made disaster. It was not inevitable. Contrary to predictable official claims that the storm was simply overwhelming and the levees were never designed to hold a storm of such magnitude, the flooding resulted from inferior engineering—a point that Ivor van Heerden (right) of the LSU Hurricane Center began speaking out about very soon after the storm passed.

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Celebrity Sighting: Levees Not War Meets FEMA’s Fugate

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Tomorrow we’ll post some comments on President Obama’s remarks at Xavier University on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But first, allow us to babble excitedly about the public-safety-and-disaster geek’s idea of a celebrity sighting:

After all the luminaries at the fab Rising Tide conference this weekend we didn’t think we could be any more dazzled, until yesterday at the New Orleans airport we bumped into FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate and his wife on their way back to Washington following the president’s speech. Sweet serendipity. We talked for a few minutes, told him Levees Not War has hailed his appointment as FEMA administrator—a return to the good old days of experience + competence that FEMA knew during the 1990s—and asked if we can interview him sometime. You see, Mr. Fugate, Levees Not War has interviewed Ivor van Heerden and Mark Schleifstein and other experts on the environment, infrastructure, and public safety, and we’d sincerely love to hear what you have to say after more than a year on the job. Mr. Fugate (pron. FEW-gate) graciously agreed, and we’ll be following up soon. In the meantime, you can see Deborah Solomon’s interview with “The Storm Tracker” in the Aug. 29 New York Times Magazine. He was tickled to hear that we used a photo of him paddling in his kayak (below), his home away from home; this may be why he agreed to an interview. Before parting, we wished each other a boring hurricane season.

A FEMA Administrator Who Tweets

Fugate, a former fireman and paramedic, directed Florida’s Division of Emergency Management from 2001 until his appointment to FEMA in 2009. Until 2009, James Lee Witt, FEMA administrator under President Clinton, was the most well qualified and admired director in the agency’s otherwise troubled history since its founding in the Carter years. Witt had been the emergency director for the state of Arkansas, and praise for his nimble and proactive emergency preparedness and response was bipartisan and pretty well unanimous. Florida native Fugate’s familiarity with hurricanes, however, certainly surpasses that of his celebrated predecessor, and he has won praise for, among other things, his insistence that individuals and families do as much as possible to help themselves by stocking up with emergency supplies and working out a plan for evacuation and communications. See his tweets about preparedness and staying alert about oncoming tropical storms here at In Case of Emergency, Read Blog.

Never anticipating we’d bump into him in an airport, we wrote here in May 2009 after Fugate was confirmed:

Obama’s nomination of Fugate to head FEMA exemplifies a restoration of trust in government and illustrates the difference between Democratic and Republican views of how elected officials should function. It is because Obama has largely chosen very highly qualified individuals for the federal agencies that Americans are consistently reporting to pollsters a renewed confidence in the integrity of government and a sense that the nation is moving in the right direction.

Stay tuned for more Fugate and FEMA reporting. Till then, you can read previous Fugate posts and our interview with Chris Cooper and Robert Block, authors of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security, which explains in compelling detail why FEMA and public safety demand a competent, experienced administrator, and what happens when those qualities are lacking. (Cooper and Block were the keynote speakers at the first Rising Tide conference in August 2006.)

Fugate for FEMA: “Semper Gumby”—In an Emergency, “The Calmest Man in the Room”

More Praise for Craig Fugate as FEMA Director-Nominee

Fugate Confirmed for FEMA: Help Is on the Way

Interview with Christopher Cooper and Robert Block, authors of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security

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Campaign to Save Ivor van Heerden’s Post at LSU

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

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?

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Department of Corrections:
About That John Edwards Endorsement

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Mardi Gras has come and gone, and Ash Wednesday too, and now it is Lent: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Speaking of dust and repentance . . .

Two years ago we endorsed John Edwards for president. That was before we realized how far superior Barack Obama was (is), and before we read Heilemann and Halperin’s Game Change from beginning to end. (Click here for an excerpt.) Now, our endorsement got a bit of attention through Huffington Post (because we said “Democrats need a tough candidate who won’t hesitate to kick the Republicans in the balls”), but apparently the endorsement caused no irreversible damage. Still, we would like to issue a correction, an admission of error of character judgment.

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When Ivor Talks, We Listen (Hear That, LSU?)

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

Photo from Wikipedia

Photo from Wikipedia

Ivor’s Greatest Hits
Selections from Levees Not War’s Interview with Ivor van Heerden

The following excerpts are highlights from our interview with Dr. van Heerden just before his book THE STORM was published in 2006. The interview can be read in full here.

I think what Hurricanes Rita and Katrina taught us
. . . 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.

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 . . .

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LSU Fires van Heerden of LSU Hurricane Center; Director Marc Levitan Resigns in Solidarity

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

Photo of Ivor van Heerden by The New York Times.

Photo of Ivor van Heerden by The New York Times.

This is definitely one for the Fresh Hell file: Just before the Easter weekend LSU notified Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center, that it would not renew his contract (he is not tenured) and he will be out of a job by May 2010. The university is not saying why—not to him, and not to the public. The firing comes after the university has imposed limits on his contacts with the media, demoted him, and retracted storm surge modeling responsibilities from his direction, among other limitations. Ubiquitous on CNN and in print after Hurricane Katrina—he is reported to have Anderson Cooper’s cell phone number—van Heerden is well known as a critic of the Army Corps of Engineers’ design of levees and the nation’s general unpreparedness for catastrophic hurricane flooding. He is also the author of the impressive and constructively critical book The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina—The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist (2006). (See Levees Not War’s interview with van Heerden here.)

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

Thursday, June 1st, 2006

Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan

Viking, 2006 • $25.95
paperback $15.00
www.thestorm-katrina.com

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.

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