Outspoken hurricane scientist Ivor van Heerden cut loose by LSU

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 12:38 PM GMT on April 14, 2009

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Louisiana State University (LSU) will not renew the contract of controversial hurricane scientist Ivor van Heerden, according to nola.com . Dr. van Heerden has been stripped of his title as deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center, and will lose his job in May 2010. The Director of the LSU Hurricane Center, engineering professor Marc Levitan, resigned from that post in protest over the firing of van Heerden. LSU has given no reason why it is removing Dr. van Heerden, but said it was not because of his performance. Van Heerden, who holds a Ph.D. degree in marine sciences from LSU, was one of the most outspoken scientists on the vulnerability of New Orleans before Katrina struck in 2005. He worked extensively with FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and political figures at the local, state, and U.S. Congressional levels to try to improve New Orleans' disaster readiness. In the aftermath of the storm, he provided support for the search and rescue efforts and plugging of the levee breaches, then headed one of the teams assigned to figure out what caused the levees to fail. PBS's NOVA did a nice story on him in 2006, featuring interviews before and after Katrina. He was highly critical of the Army Corps of Engineers and politicians at the local, state, and federal level for allowing the Katrina disaster to happen, and for their abysmal response to the storm's aftermath.

It is no surprise that van Heerden has been fired, as he has also been very critical of the LSU administration. His May 2006 book, The Storm: What went wrong and why during Hurricane Katrina--the inside story from one Louisiana scientist, (see my review), tells of a case in November 2005 after Katrina where two LSU assistant chancellors told him to stop talking to the press, because it was "hurting LSU's quest for federal funding across the board." Van Heerden further remarked:

A balanced view on research is lacking at many universities obsessed with competing for the big brownie points, where upper administrators' egos and boasting rights are more important than solving problems to the benefit of society at large. You would think that our work before, during, and after Katrina might have turned some heads at LSU, but not really. Witness the gag order placed on me by the school during the levee investigation a couple of months later (soon rescinded with apologies)

Van Heerden is a big proponent of building a flood protection system that will protect Louisiana from a Category 5 hurricane. He proposes doing this by restoring wetlands, building armored levees, and installing huge flood gates on Lake Pontchartrain, similar to what the Dutch use to protect their country from the North Sea. I especially like his emphasis on the importance of doing good science. He is not a fan of what politicians and business leaders do with good science:

The science is the easy part. The hard part is overcoming the narrow-mindedness and selfishness of politics and business as usual. For decades the two have undermined plan after plan to restore wetlands, build new ones, and thereby protect people and property. They have played hell with improving the existing levee system. We must do better now, or we can kiss it all good-bye for good. I was not exaggerating in the introduction when I said that politics and business as usual in Louisiana will eventually put everything below Interstate 10 underwater. Science and engineering can save the day, but not if they're censored or manipulated. If that's to be the case, just shelve them and start packing. It's over.

According to an article in The Nation, Dr. van Heerden is scheduled to testify in a trial that begins in federal court on April 20. Judge Stanwood Duval will rule on a claim by six homeowners that the Corps failed to heed environmental laws in building and maintaining the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet shipping shortcut, which they claim led to the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans during Katrina. A second trial will begin shortly after that--a large class action suit seeking hundreds of millions in damages from the Corps. When Dr. van Heerden was first asked to testify at these trials in spring 2007, LSU's then-president, Sean O'Keefe, told plaintiffs' attorneys that if van Heerden testified against the Corps he would be fired (O'Keefe had served as head of NASA under George W. Bush between 2001 - 2005, and stepped down as LSU chancellor in January 2008). According to van Heerden, the LSU president said "nobody from LSU was going to embarrass the Bush administration or upset the major Republican companies that benefit from Corps of Engineers contracts." LSU has officially blocked Dr. van Heerden from testifying as an "expert witness" in the upcoming trials, but he can still testify as a "fact witness".

Regardless of where he winds up next, I'm sure Van Heerden will continue to voice his valuable views on the science of what is best for Louisiana and New Orleans. In an interview with the Associated Press, Dr. van Heerden said Friday he would appeal the college's decision and was considering legal action. "Before going that route, I hope LSU will recognize the signal they've sent to the world is that academic freedom does not exist at LSU. The folks who are going to lose in this is LSU, not me. I will find a job rather easily. There have already been some offers."

Less politics and better science would go a long ways towards reducing our vulnerability to hurricanes. Ivor van Heerden has been a much-needed critical voice in advocating this, and I applaud his tenacity in calling it as he sees it. Louisiana very much needs Dr. van Heerden's input over the coming decades on how to move ahead to protect the vulnerable coast of the state against the twin threats of hurricanes and rising sea levels. The move by Louisiana's flagship university to silence his voice should concern everyone in the path of the next Katrina.

Jeff Masters

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40. atmoaggie 9:25 AM CDT on April 14, 2009
It is built on land that was below sea level from the beginning

Whuuuut? No, the older parts of town are a number of feet above sea level and always have been.

Pat, what is the elevation of Audubon Park area and the quarter? 10 feet above?


My homes in Pass Christian, were 13.5 and 18 feet above sea level...you can look at my blog and see what good that did me. New Orleans will not make it against a major strike. The water was over the top of my home. My home is gone, but, I saw the water marks on the tree tops (my live oaks made it thru Katrina)...Pat's house at 20 feet has a chance, although, once you fill it up with all that stinky, dirty water, it will be a tough clean up job...
We now live in Lafayette, and I don't feel safe here either...If the right storm comes up Vermilion bay, at the right angle, well...let's just say, the outcome is one of my worst nightmares.
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mesocale thunderstorm offshore sarasota 40 miles moving East at 50mph....sarasota may have a tornado warning in about 20-30minutes....I'm staying on top of it!!!,one things fo sure the clouds are moving in different directions...
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Ok, since I have not fired myself for anything I have said lately... I guess that means I have to go to work. I am looking forward to reading more comments in about an hour. This is the first time I have seen this discussed without irrational statements.
Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26516
Quoting npenta519:


As much as I agree with van Heerden, I also agree with this. Sorry, Mother Nature, whatever you want to call it, is always going to win in the end. Engineers can only build to protect, they can't really build to prevent. Virtually impossible.

My mother's favorite saying: I gave you life, and I can take it away. Extremely apt in regards to Nature also, wouldn't you say?


ROFLMAO, we had the same mother.. or at least the same saying. I think its in the Mothers handbook.
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Quoting tampabos:


I read it online at the St Pete Times website and on Bay News 9.


thanks! I havn't been able to read those websites or anything yet.
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Quoting Ossqss:


Can't Happen = could not anwer the question for I still had 297 pages left to read in the book you assigned. Can I opt for extra credit? :)


I'll consider it.

Back later.
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Quoting Orcasystems:


I have to agree with you. There were numerous experts on TV after Katrina, saying that money should not have been wasted rebuilding in the areas that were below sea level... and that is the correct answer. It would be political suicide to agree to that... instead they are going to rebuild it, and blame the Army COE for not making it 100% safe.

I see people on here ever week complaining about the COE not doing enough... its impossible for them to do enough, its going to happen again. The Law of Nature is not controlled by mankind, or the COE



As much as I agree with van Heerden, I also agree with this. Sorry, Mother Nature, whatever you want to call it, is always going to win in the end. Engineers can only build to protect, they can't really build to prevent. Virtually impossible.

My mother's favorite saying: I gave you life, and I can take it away. Extremely apt in regards to Nature also, wouldn't you say?
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It was Dr. Ivor van Heerden that wrote the science in The PAM exercise from 04.
It showed.almost EXACTLY what would happen to NOLA and the surrounding Parishes.

Not one FEMA ,State,or Federal official pulled the Book off the shelf and used it as a outline on what to do.
Ivor was ridiculed then for warning many about the Levee's,Federally Built,..

The exercise used realistic weather and damage information developed by the National Weather Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the LSU Hurricane Center and other state and federal agencies to help officials develop joint response plans for a catastrophic hurricane in Louisiana.



Hurricane Pam Exercise Concludes

Release Date: July 23, 2004
Release Number: R6-04-093
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129841
Quoting Orcasystems:


I have to agree with you. There were numerous experts on TV after Katrina, saying that money should not have been wasted rebuilding in the areas that were below sea level... and that is the correct answer. It would be political suicide to agree to that... instead they are going to rebuild it, and blame the Army COE for not making it 100% safe.

I see people on here ever week complaining about the COE not doing enough... its impossible for them to do enough, its going to happen again. The Law of Nature is not controlled by mankind, or the COE



I have a middle of the road attitude about this. There are places around NOLA that are 10+ feet below sea level. In some areas, the risks are spectacular.

Some of those places have the potential for floods without a tropical system at all. Such as with the 25 mph south winds we had a few days ago. Without levee protections there would have been some evacuations this month.
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Quoting atmoaggie:
Oss: You got the wrong answer last night.

A prevailing wind with a general direction from south to north will, and does, generate an upwelling event along S Texas and N Mexico in the GoM.

Happens most every summer and only in the summer. Shows up as an intermittent cold spot and always has very high oceanic chlorophyll, but not from a river outflow (Roi Grande hardly carries any water nowadays).


Can't Happen = could not anwer the question for I still had 297 pages left to read in the book you assigned. Can I opt for extra credit? :)
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10-20 ft depending on where y'at.
Im near Audubon and Im at 20 ft.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129841
Quoting ajcamsmom2:
Too bad no one seems to be listening to van Heerden...The home health agency I used to work with received an emergency preparedness DVD in early 2005 (before Katrina) that pretty much showed what was coming with Katrina on a Baton Rouge model...There is really no reason to think that you can protect New Orleans from another storm (terrorist attack, etc). It is built on land that was below sea level from the beginning and the land has been sinking ever since. The barrier islands are worn down too much to deter anything and the worst seems yet to come. I worry that a strong tropical storm could do real damage there and with the way storms are starting to damage such wide paths, well, Texas storms may hurt New Orleans...So, what I am trying to say is...Maybe they should have encouraged people to rebuild their homes at higher elevations like they did for homes on the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Katrina...


I have to agree with you. There were numerous experts on TV after Katrina, saying that money should not have been wasted rebuilding in the areas that were below sea level... and that is the correct answer. It would be political suicide to agree to that... instead they are going to rebuild it, and blame the Army COE for not making it 100% safe.

I see people on here ever week complaining about the COE not doing enough... its impossible for them to do enough, its going to happen again. The Law of Nature is not controlled by mankind, or the COE

Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26516
Dr. Masters,

van Heerden is a hero for not allowing politics to silence his dissent.

Thank you for bringing his story to our attention!

-JR
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Lots of lightning in FL, around 1000 total/min within range of detectors -not "excessive" though, <12/ CG/min for individual cells.
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Good morning Dr Masters,

Very interesting article in your header; it is ashame politics gets in the way of weather forcasting and hurricane preparedness. Thanks for passing it along.

Hi everyone.. happy Tuesday to you.
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It is built on land that was below sea level from the beginning

Whuuuut? No, the older parts of town are a number of feet above sea level and always have been.

Pat, what is the elevation of Audubon Park area and the quarter? 10 feet above?
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Quoting Littleninjagrl:
Tampabos....whn/where did you hear that? Only asking becuase i am at work and don't have a TV or anything. thanks!!


I read it online at the St Pete Times website and on Bay News 9.
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Oss: You got the wrong answer last night.

A prevailing wind with a general direction from south to north will, and does, generate an upwelling event along S Texas and N Mexico in the GoM.

Happens most every summer and only in the summer. Shows up as an intermittent cold spot and always has very high oceanic chlorophyll, but not from a river outflow (Roi Grande hardly carries any water nowadays).
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Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26516
Too bad no one seems to be listening to van Heerden...The home health agency I used to work with received an emergency preparedness DVD in early 2005 (before Katrina) that pretty much showed what was coming with Katrina on a Baton Rouge model...There is really no reason to think that you can protect New Orleans from another storm (terrorist attack, etc). It is built on land that was below sea level from the beginning and the land has been sinking ever since. The barrier islands are worn down too much to deter anything and the worst seems yet to come. I worry that a strong tropical storm could do real damage there and with the way storms are starting to damage such wide paths, well, Texas storms may hurt New Orleans...So, what I am trying to say is...Maybe they should have encouraged people to rebuild their homes at higher elevations like they did for homes on the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Katrina...
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Tampabos....whn/where did you hear that? Only asking becuase i am at work and don't have a TV or anything. thanks!!
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Quoting npenta519:
Very interesting entry. Not sure I understand how Dr van Heerden could be blocked from testifying, especially if he were to be subpoenaed, but that's just my thought. It really is too bad that instead of admitting fault, they chose to fire this man on the basis of him being right.


It is my understanding that the expert witness gig is entirely voluntary. My experience as one for hurricane meteorology for homeowner cases is that each side will have their own and they are paid for by the attorneys.

van Heerden will be missed in SE LA. He likely will not be staying here. Neat guy to talk to for a half hour if you get that opportunity. Down to earth and open, approachable, kind-of guy.
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Keep in mind the scientist who was hushed after warning about signs of earthquake potential in Italy. Also keep in mind the blog is now linked to the NY Times so many more people will hear about Dr. van Heerden's story.
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It is my understanding that a second line of storms develop and come into Tampa Bay bringing possible severe weather.
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Quoting Patrap:
Er,..duh..every port is at Sea Level.
Thats not news,thats fact.


I believe the keyword is BELOW sea level.
Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26516
I had small hail at my house in the West Chase subdivision.
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Quoting Patrap:
Sunday, September 04, 2005




George Friedman: New Orleans--A Geopolitical Prize


Notice the Date and read this..
One just may be enlightened,instead of reactive to Bullsh*t


Yep
Member Since: June 12, 2005 Posts: 6 Comments: 8188
WOW! Not sure what part of Tampa some of you are in but i'm in the town n country area of tampa and it wasn't that bad. It did rain a little hard but didn't seem like anything more than a regular old summer thunderstorm. we had a few rumbles and saw one flash of lighting. Now it stopped and it looks like we are done. Darnit! We need more rain!
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Sunday, September 04, 2005




George Friedman: New Orleans--A Geopolitical Prize


The ports of South Louisiana and New Orleans, which run north and south of the city, are as important today as at any point during the history of the republic. On its own merit, the Port of South Louisiana is the largest port in the United States by tonnage and the fifth-largest in the world. It exports more than 52 million tons a year, of which more than half are agricultural products -- corn, soybeans and so on. A larger proportion of U.S. agriculture flows out of the port. Almost as much cargo, nearly 57 million tons, comes in through the port -- including not only crude oil, but chemicals and fertilizers, coal, concrete and so on.

Notice the Date and read this..
One just may be enlightened,instead of reactive to Bullsh*t
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129841
no mention of severe wx for central,fl yesterday....however last night the ingredents were all coming together...this outbreak for central FL is just starting,and I expect this to be the most widespread severe event thus far for central fl.....tornado damage confirmed in pasco county already........SWFL residents pay close attention to the skies as the tornado/hail threat is there today!!!!be safe everyone!!!!...join me for local weather reports from swfl @ twitter.com/sarasotaweather.....I'll post some storm pics there as they arrive in the next 90minutes
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Er,..duh..every port is at Sea Level.
Thats not news,thats fact.
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 428 Comments: 129841
Politics + Science = Political Science = Trouble !

When you drill down into this item, is not the root problem that a city was built near water below sea level ?
Member Since: June 12, 2005 Posts: 6 Comments: 8188
Those who go the Extra Mile in doing the right thing,sometimes get the Hammer.

Ivor is a Great Scientist,saw him while He was doing the investigation of The 17th Street Canal I-Wall failure.

LSU is getting heat from all sides on this.And I for one appreciate the good Dr. Masters,bringing this out in the open for all the World to see.

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watching a hook trying to form just southwest of Orlando...
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I just find it so interesting how people still feel like natural disasters are avoidable, such as Katrina. Then they place blame at the feet of a handful of people for not "doing more". I do not remember hearing shouts of warning years leading up to Katrina. Could more have been done, yeah, of course. But what happened was no one's fault. Blame is akin to bitterness, and does no one any good.

As for the firing of this man, if I showed as much disregard for my employer's wishes as this man did. I too would be looking for a new job.
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I am experiencing heavy rain and high winds.
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Very interesting entry. Not sure I understand how Dr van Heerden could be blocked from testifying, especially if he were to be subpoenaed, but that's just my thought. It really is too bad that instead of admitting fault, they chose to fire this man on the basis of him expressing his opinions.
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YIKES FROM TAMPA BAY....We do pay some dues for such much needed rain!! It is pitch black, blowin' and lightning all around.
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12(+)
I also wondered how much service I would be providing if I called my bosses "narrow minded".
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Government seems to have a perpetual goal of controlling everything, and the science of weather is no exception. Were we able to remove the political element from what the public gains in relation to qualified information, perhaps there would then be a better understanding of what is taking place, and what we must do to manage our lives accordingly.
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Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26516
very good posting Dr Masters. It appears that the democracy and free speech which America talks about is only lip service
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I have read the book, and I agree with most of what he has said.... that being said...
As a business owner, I have the right to expect my employees to do as I say during business hours... or if you job calls for you to represent my business Nationally or Internationally, to follow the party line I set down.

So they are both right. Termination was threatened, and carried out, as any employer would have done.

Dr. van Heerden, was right in a lot of his observations, and stuck to his opinion, now he just has to find someone else to pay his salary.
Member Since: October 1, 2007 Posts: 81 Comments: 26516
It is a thankless task to point out what needs to be done prior to the need. I applaud his work and your making us aware of how he is being treated now. I look forward to finding out how his future unfolds. I hope he remains in a position to keep making a difference in storm awareness and preparedness.
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Wooo Hoooo!!!! ITs pouring!!!!!!!
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Obviously, there are better things in store for Dr.van Heerden. With no more ties to LSU, he can be free to pursue his work in a more open-minded arena.

Excellent blog, Dr.Masters. Just goes to show what a detriment money and politics can be to science.
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says a lot about our society,when your penalized for speaking the truth.
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Kudos to Dr. van Heerden for telling the truth.
Looks like it's going to rain here in Central Florida today!
Issued by The National Weather Service
Melbourne, FL
6:19 am EDT, Tue., Apr. 14, 2009

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE HAS ISSUED TORNADO WATCH 154 IN EFFECT UNTIL 2 PM EDT THIS AFTERNOON FOR THE FOLLOWING AREAS IN FLORIDA THIS WATCH INCLUDES 6 COUNTIES IN EAST CENTRAL FLORIDA BREVARD LAKE ORANGE OSCEOLA SEMINOLE VOLUSIA THIS INCLUDES THE CITIES OF... DAYTONA BEACH... KISSIMMEE... LEESBURG... MELBOURNE... ORLANDO... SANFORD AND ST CLOUD.

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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