BATON ROUGE (CN) - A hurricane expert claims Louisiana State University gave him the boot for criticizing the Army Corps of Engineers' poor work on New Orleans levees, whose failures flooded the city after Hurricane Katrina. Ivor van Heerden claims LSU fired him for fear that his public criticism would hurt the university's federal funding.
Van Heerden says LSU placed the bureaucratic interests of university officials "above the health and safety of the millions of people who live in the path of the hurricanes that threaten the Gulf Coast every year."
Van Heerden's book, "The Storm," published in 2006, recounts the Federal Emergency Management Agency's failed response to Hurricane Katrina. In that book and in public statements during and after Katrina, van Heerden said the Army Corps of Engineers made serious engineering mistakes that caused multiple breaches in the levee systems meant to protect New Orleans against hurricane-related flooding.
In his complaint in East Baton Rouge Parish Court, Van Heerden says LSU and its administrators have publicly branded him as "incompetent and irresponsible" because of his statements, barred him from working on storm preparedness with government agencies, and terminated him "by manipulating the policies and procedures governing faculty appointments at LSU."
When Katrina hit, Van Heerden had been a member of the College of Engineering faculty since 2000 and since then had been deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center. He also had been director of the LSU Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes.
Much of Van Heerden's expertise is on protection and restoration of wetlands and barrier islands that historically provided a buffer to Louisiana's natural hurricane vulnerability.
He warned of an "apocalypse awaiting New Orleans" from a direct hit by a major storm "due to the combination of the city's natural vulnerability and progressive diminution of barrier-island and wetland buffers."
Though he warned of devastation that would befall New Orleans should a major hurricane make landfall, van Heerden says that Hurricane Katrina should not have caused such destruction. Katrina veered eastward just before making landfall and in the end was far less powerful than expected. Nevertheless some 85 percent of New Orleans was flooded "from breaches of several levee walls which had been designed and engineered by the Corps," according to the complaint.
Van Heerden says that in the midst of the "Katrina emergency," LSU's then-Vice Chancellor Harold Silverman told him and others at the Hurricane Center "that their operational support to federal and state agencies during the storm emergency was 'okay,' but that what really excited him was 'federal dollars.'
"In the weeks after Katrina, Corps officials insisted the storm surge from Katrina 'had overtopped and overwhelmed their Grade A levees,'" the complaint states. But van Heerden says he "minced no words" in rejecting that explanation.
Van Heerden told the Washington Post that he was "absolutely convinced that those flood walls were never overtopped," and that "the real scandal of Katrina [was] the 'catastrophic structural failure' of barriers that should have handled the hurricanes with relative ease." (Brackets in complaint.)
In October 2005, van Heerden was appointed to head Louisiana's nine-member Forensic Data Gathering Team, known as "Team Louisiana" was established under the Louisiana Department of Transport and Development (DOTD) to investigate the causes of the flooding and the ensuing deaths and devastation.
In November 2005, van Heerden testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs regarding Team Louisiana's preliminary findings - that widespread levee failures and flood breaching were due to a levee design that didn't account for the very weak nature, high porosity and permeability of the soils around the levees. He described the Corps' design as a "geotechnical engineering failure."
Not long after that, according to the complaint, then-Vice Chancellor Silverman and others called van Heerden to a meeting and "admonished him for his public criticisms of the Corps, saying the criticisms jeopardized LSU's prospects for federal funding."
Van Heerden says he maintained his position that the Corps' engineering failures were to blame for 90 percent of the flooding and 50 percent of the associated deaths. The remaining 50 percent of the deaths he attributed to FEMA's failed response.
After "The Storm" was published in 2006, The New York Times reported that van Heerden's views about the Corps had "gotten him called on the carpet [at the university] for threatening the institution's relationship with the federal government and the research money that comes with that." (Brackets in complaint.)
In response, he says, then-Vice Chancellor Michael Ruffner sent a letter to The New York Times saying that van Heerden had "no professional credentials or training" to discuss the engineering of levees.
In 2007, van Heerden says, he was asked to serve as an expert witness in a lawsuit charging the Corps of Engineers with negligence with regard to the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO). Breaches in the MRGO caused widespread flooding of New Orleans' Ninth Ward and much of St. Bernard Parish. Van Heerden says LSU administrators told attorneys for the plaintiffs "that the chancellor stated that Dr. van Heerden would be fired if he testified against the Corps."
"The attorney stated: 'They just don't want their people front and center in such politically charged conflicts, especially in a capacity that opposes the current Republican regime.' In the end, the defendants prohibited Dr. van Heerden from testifying as an expert witness. This unwarranted action directly interfered with Dr. van Heerden's ability to earn income and direction affected his reputation and standing in the community," according to the complaint.
Instead of testifying as an expert, van Heerden served as a non-testifying expert at depositions that began in early 2009. (Since then, a federal judge has ruled that the Corps is to blame for the failure of the MRGO and widespread flooding.)
Van Heerden's contract with LSU has not been renewed and is scheduled to end at the end of May.
Van Heerden seeks damages from LSU and its Board of Supervisors for constitutional violations, breach of contract, libel, slander and defamation.
He is represented by Jill Craft of Baton Rouge.
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