LSU and Louisiana Silence the Truth of Corps of Engineers’ Levee Failure after Katrina

ACORN Rebuild New Orleans

New Orleans   Seven and a half years have ticked off the calendar since Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  At this point it is widely conceded, common knowledge, and general consensus that the heart of the destruction of New Orleans came from the “catastrophic structural failure due to pressure bursts” in the words of Ivor van Heerden, who at the time was deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center and a professor at Louisiana State University (LSU) at the main Baton Rouge campus.

Van Heerden made it clear publicly that the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers was categorically wrong in saying that the levee breach was due to “overtopping” from the hurricane surge, which they were saying at the time.  He went on to say that that along the Industrial Canal that flooded the lower 9th Ward that the breechings “all show plenty evidence of catastrophic structural failure due to bad engineering or bad design or bad construction or bad foundations.”  Subsequent studies by various panels of structural engineers from throughout the United States and internationally have established van Heerden’s early analysis to have been accurate.

In classic “kill the messenger” fashion within months LSU muzzled van Heerden by blocking his ability to speak to the press, pushed him out of his Hurricane Center post, and deep-sixed his contract as a professor at the school.  LSU also claimed none of this had to do with him nailing the Corps of Engineers for the levee failure or the fact that LSU received grant money from the Corps.  Oh, no, they said.  Meanwhile van Heerden was standing on the platform of academic freedom and free speech and showing up on the news everywhere.  After being busted out of his job at LSU, he filed suit against the university and the state three years ago, all of which was scheduled to go to trial next week in Baton Rouge on February 19th, but suddenly last week a settlement was reached.

Thanks to the Baton Rouge Advocate it is now clear that the settlement was suddenly and magically reached when the judge ordered that hundreds of emails and other documents would not be excluded from evidence.  Now that the documents are part of the court record it is now clear that just as van Heerden alleged, LSU officials and state government officials had indeed moved quickly to silence him for his remarks at the breech at the Industrial Canal where hundreds of low income, African-American residents were drowned.

The emails are shocking and their attack on van Heerden was immediately in response to his report putting the responsibility at the feet of the Corps of Engineers.  An official of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources the next day had sent a message to Governor Blanco’s assistant for coastal activities and chairwoman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority suggesting that the LSU president be advised to “get his staff under control.”  She had then emailed van Heerden’s boss within 26 minutes saying “This is astounding and must be stopped!!”  After van Heerden briefed Governor Blanco for several hours on his analysis of the levee failure, the emails indicate his boss still sucking up Ms. Sidney Coffee on the coastal restoration committee, assured her that van Heerden was not part of the LSU team that had helped the Corps “develop the chief engineer’s report.  So, he does not represent the wider coastal science and engineering community.”  The head of LSU’s Office of Communications and University Relations put a sock in van Heerden’s mouth, but later had to rescind that order when LSU was overwhelmed by media requests, and then when the Times reported that there were on-campus criticism of van Heerden, he wrote the Times claiming there had been no such effort, taking the pattern of lies yet another couple of miles deeper into the hellish hole that LSU and the State of Louisiana had dug around their toadying to protect their measly grant monies from the feds rather than protecting the safety of residents in the 9th Ward of New Orleans or seeing that they would find justice in the future.

LSU and the State seem to have been particularly galled that van Heerden was a showboat.  The judge also ordered last week that van Heerden’s personal financial information, including the fact that he owned a $126,000 personal yacht, be allowed in the court record, which van Heerden had opposed.  Van Heerden was probably afraid that the jury would award him less money on the case if they were offended about the fact that he had done well on the grandstand even though given the hard backside boot by LSU and Louisiana.

I am confident that he this unreported settlement was a big payday for van Heerden, and clearly it should have been, since LSU and the state were guilty as charged.  The venality of relationships between all sorts of institutions, regardless of their claims of mission and principles, and their donors and constant pursuit of funding is so pervasive that it rarely provokes comment anymore.  Everyone seems to simply assume that that is the way it is so perhaps that is the way it should be.  Disgusting!

There is no one in the 9th Ward of New Orleans who cares whether van Heerden was a showboat or a working barge.  Both roll through the Mississippi River in sight of many of the houses throughout the neighborhood on a daily basis.  The riverboats blow their whistles on the calliopes on board.  No one minds, as long as they sail and don’t sink.  Same for this mess.  It’s the message that counts, not the messenger.  Who cares if van Heerden was rich or poor, a loudmouth self-aggrandizer or a humble public servant?  The point should have always been to come to the truth to correct the problem and protect people in the future, and after billions have now been spent on levee protection around New Orleans some small steps have been taken in the right direction.  It seems we still have van Heerden to thank for that and not LSU or some of the commissions and agencies and individuals sworn to protect us, and that’s the worst tragedy here and one that no amount of money will resolve.

[More information available on all of this through Social Policy Press and my book, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster.]