Saturday, April 25, 2009

Guest Post By Roger Pippin: Will The Re-Flooding Of New Orleans Be Another Predictable Surprise... Again?


Ivor van Heerden-- knows too much about why Katrina happened

Roger Pippin, a native of South Louisiana and alumni of Louisiana State University, is a researcher in emergency communications and management science. He is currently living and working in the Harlem community of New York City, leading workshops on the history and impact of Hurricane Katrina, and is moving to Atlanta next month to join the Centers for Disease Control as a research fellow.

Besides eating too much utility pizza and writing all day, I’m working with a non-profit group here in New York. We recently sat down for an interview and casual show and tell with Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, the directors of Trouble the Water, a documentary about Hurricane Katrina. Now bear in mind that these guys produced Fahrenheit 9/11, so as you can imagine, they have some pretty strong and well articulated opinions about Katrina. At the end of our time together, I asked Mr. Deal the question “what do you think was the real reason behind Katrina?”-- a question I ask of anyone involved in a substantial way just to see their answer. His reply stuck with me because it was the most lucid and simple thing I have ever heard about Katrina: “The tragedy of Katrina happened because people in power made a decision that other people were going to die.”

Indeed, the chess board is that simple, but the pieces have complex stories.

As a simple boy from Louisiana now spending a little time in the Big Apple, I have found that one way to explain the convoluted mess of Hurricane Katrina to people is to compare some of its features to 9/11.

Both of these events were life-changing for many people, they both created many casualties, they both involved a massive clean-up effort, and they both were completely predictable by anyone who knew anything about intelligence management, communication science, and had half a brain in their head.

They both were, to use the language of Max Bazerman, a “predictable surprise”-- a type of event that is empirically predictable, but psychologically unacceptable to predict. In other words, something that happens because of the human tendency to avoid making a decision that involves incurring significant cost in the present in exchange for the mitigation of theoretically catastrophic cost in the future. You could pay now, but maybe you’ll get lucky and things will just stay the same (Wall Street, anyone?)

It is here that the similarities between 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina end. Hurricane Katrina obviously did not receive the same level of coordinated response as 9/11. More importantly, 9/11 did not take place in Louisiana, a place that is as wonderful and charming as it is backwards and corrupt. At this moment, I am scared for my friends and family in New Orleans and South Louisiana. Hurricane Katrina was The Event for many people because it was like watching a nightmare in slow motion. At this moment I know that it will happen again. It is as predictable as algebra and inevitable as gravity.

Because Louisiana State University has fired Dr. Ivor van Heerden, a research scientist who has criticized the Army Corps of Engineers and their role in the construction of the levees, I worry that the state itself and New Orleans in particular are headed in direction that will make the re-flooding of New Orleans another predictable surprise, again.

Was Louisiana State University professor Dr. van Heerden fired from his position because he dared to criticize the engineering skills of the Army Corps of Engineers? Is LSU worried about their funding from the Feds so much that they are willing to throw out the truth along with their dignity and responsibility towards the citizens of Louisiana? Does this criticism of the ACE put LSU in a position where they have to fire van Heerden because they are dependent on Federal grant money to keep up the status quo? Probably. The facts of the case seem to answer all of these questions in the affirmative.

But because LSU won’t/can’t release any comments or documents about ongoing personnel decisions, we may never really know. Instead of drawing the dots that may or may not be there, I’ll stick to the ones that glare out to me, namely, the dots that, when looked at from far above the fog of bureaucracy, spell out the words expertise and public safety. How is the role of expertise corrupted when it comes to public safety?

These are the relevant facts: Dr.Ivor van Heerden was the Deputy Director of the LSU Hurricane Center and Associate Professor of Research with the Civil and Environmental Engineering department at LSU. He will be let go within a year. Now, there’s a lot of people in various comment sections of the blogosphere that argue that since he’s still there, why is everybody up in arms that he was fired? The answer is that egg-head jobs aren’t like normal jobs. If you are a professor and you haven’t made tenure yet, you can be fired for all kinds of reasons: not publishing enough, not glad handing the right departmental oldsters, anything really that the tenure committee decides. Yet, unlike regular jobs, most of the time your get a 6 month or 1 year heads up before you canned. Nevertheless, he still got the axe.

Recently the The Nation pointed out that Van Heerden was the leader of "Team Louisiana," the official independent state-funded investigation of the Katrina flooding. That panel found that the levee failures reflected poor design, bad science and shoddy engineering on the part of the Corps. The Bush Administration had held the levee failures were an "act of God."

Calling the failures an act of God essentially means that no one is responsible for the failure of the levees because no one could have planned for an event like Hurricane Katrina. Van Heerden’s point is that the danger was always there, and we could have planned for it. My point is that if we can’t put our finger on the reasons why the levees fail, then they will fail again. At this point, I’m sure some Bushite will throw up their hands and mash their teeth about how they don’t want to play the blame game. Indeed, the blame game does not interest me in the slightest, but the reason behind the levee failures is still a pertinent and scientifically valid question. It is not our job to sue the company that made the toxic waste that allegedly caused the cancer, but it is our task to find out where that waste may be.

Recently, van Heerden was removed as the deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center. Soon he will be without a job at all. Engineering professor Marc Levitan resigned from his position as the director of the LSU Hurricane Center over the firing of van Heerden. Less than two weeks ago, students at LSU protested the firing of Dr. van Heerden. Citizens of New Orleans have also protested the firing of van Heerden, who has become somewhat of a local hero. As a former academic, I can tell you that when the public starts protesting against the firing of a professor, then something is up.

So here’s a quick review-- Back in 2006, when van Heerden’s book The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina (a wonderful book full of data, although the prose is somewhat tortuous) came out, a work that was critical of the Government and the Army Corps of Engineers, the New York Times reported that:
A message from Mr. [Michael] Ruffner, the vice chancellor for communications [at LSU], to Dr. van Heerden after their meeting stated that the university wanted to be in on helping with the recovery of Louisiana, "not in pointing blame.” In an interview Mr. Ruffner said Dr. van Heerden's training in environmental management did not qualify him to comment on engineering matters. "We don't see him as a viable source to be discussing the engineering aspect of the levees," he said. "I have an advanced degree in communications, but that doesn't qualify me to comment on the New York Philharmonic."

This type of dangerous and infantile argument is repeatedly leveled, both officially and unofficially, against van Heerden and in general anybody who speaks about the Gov’s FUBAR before, during, and after Katrina. Now, despite the dozens of issues with this situation, here’s where things really start to go down the toilet for LSU, because this is the point where LSU officials, true to their style, begin to depart from any semblance of reality. What has to be made clear is that van Heerden has a PhD in marine science. Apparently, Ruffner doesn’t understand that levees that hold back water from drowning cities occasionally have interaction with substances called “water” and “soil,” topics which are covered in monastic detail by marine scientists. In fact, van Heerden is an expert on geotechnical soil issues that pertain to foundational failures. Or, to parse it down a bit for the Ruffner crowd, van Heerden knows a lot about dirt that goes under stuff, stuff like levees. Ruffner admits that he isn’t qualified to conduct the Philharmonic, but omitted in his reasoning is the fact that he isn’t qualified to speak about geotechnical soil issues either. But, his job is to be the chief spin-minister of LSU, so this is to be expected.

Even more interesting is the implication of this for experts caught in similar circumstances between the truth and hard place (made of government funding).

What does it mean to be an expert in an academic and research environment composed of various, interlocking, monetary fulcrums? I’m old enough to know the reality is that funding trumps scientific validity half the time anyway, but the funding that LSU might be buying by firing van Heerden is not purchased with firing one man, it is purchased via the safety of over a million human beings living in the New Orleans metropolitan area who will not be protected in the future because the truth of an engineering failure has been willfully oppressed, and therefore will not be corrected to any substantial degree.

What the bureaucrats at LSU don’t get is that expertise is no longer a matter of simple specialization. Although we still see the conflation of the two in some of the natural sciences, and perhaps even some branches of theoretical mathematics, the idea that the topical area on your PhD diploma means that you are only an expert in that area is laughable. First, sometimes people who get advanced degrees keep learning, reading, and doing things in other areas, which is sometimes part of being a responsible intellectual-- you go where the evidence demands, even if its into a related field that isn’t written on your diploma. Second, technology such as levees is cannot be compartmentalized into a specialization such as civil engineering. Levees are a type of technology that represents a sort of expertise “nexus,” a physical manifestation of where many specializations meet. For example, consider the science and art of prosthetic limbs. The A-list for this technology includes electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, rehabilitative therapists, sculptures, and physicians. What people like Ruffner are arguing is that only the physician is qualified to speak about prosthetic limbs, whereas the mechanical engineer who specializes in prosthetic limb development is not qualified to speak because he isn’t an M.D... The same situation is going on with LSU attempting to muzzle van Heerden. You can’t understand an event like Katrina from a viewpoint of academic specialization. Any attempt to do so will result in a false description and diagnosis of the problem. Academic specializations were developed in a day and age (in Germany) when those categories made sense, but they have no place in a catastrophic failure like Katrina, which requires solid investigative skills and good general scientific expertise, not fidelity to your original specialization.

Even though van Heerden’s degree is not in civil engineering, he still knows a hell of a lot about levees, and moreover the dirt underneath them, which might be an important thing if, say, a hurricane went over New Orleans and pushed the levees out of the ground because the soil wasn’t structurally sound enough to support said levees. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Van Heerden also know a lot about how the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), built by the ACE at tremendous cost with almost zero return, has allowed salt-water into the wetlands and thus destroyed both the marsh and its ability to lessen the effects of storm surge that helped destroy the levees. But that has nothing to do with levees, only the water that pushes on them, so it’s irrelevant, right?

Van Heerden was still the deputy director of the Hurricane Center and head of Team Louisiana when the downplaying of this qualifications began, but most damningly against LSU, every other scientific and engineering body that has examined the New Orleans Levee problem agrees with van Heerden, with the exception of the Army Corps of Engineers. For example, Raymond Seed, a UC Berkeley professor of engineering said very plainly in a letter to the American Society of Civil Engineers that "'My own University (U.C. Berkeley) was also approached in an inappropriate manner during that same Winter of 2005-06, but such untoward pressures were simply rebuffed. That, in the end, probably goes right to the heart of what really separates a top-flight university with one of the top Colleges of Engineering in the nation (and the top-rated Department of Civil Engineering in the nation) from a university like LSU."

Burn. It’s also interesting that the American Society of Civil Engineers refers to the breaking of the New Orleans levees as “the worst engineering catastrophe in U.S. history.” What about the money? reported that
The federal government is the largest source of research funding for universities, and LSU was lining up tens of millions of dollars for coastal and wetlands work-- much of which might be partnered with the corps. Having one of its professors lobbing bombs at the feds made some at the university fear for the LSU pocketbook.

If you’re from Louisiana, this might not be a surprise for you. Because all of Louisiana’s oil platforms are more 3 miles off our coast, the Federal Government receives all of the oil and gas royalties produced by those facilities, unlike states like Texas and Wyoming that get to keep the money. Louisiana produces between 20 and 25% of all of the oil and natural gas in this country, and so obviously if we got to keep that money, I would not be writing this because the levees would have been made out of gold-reinforced concrete topped with diamonds and therefore still standing. But, because the Feds get all the cash, universities like LSU are almost totally reliant upon them to ration out money, and the Army Corps of Engineers is practically forced to build everything on the cheap. All of this begs the question of who is really at fault-- I would say that the ACE has some responsibility here, but it is really the Feds that want van Heerden to shut up. If everyone woke up to the idea that Louisiana would be the richest state in the Union if we kept our own petro-royalities, the Feds might lose their infinite piggy bank. If people realized that if we had that money we could build levees that would last a thousand years, then the Feds couldn’t keep Louisiana on a leash to maintain its golden goose status. The ACE is not the ultimate problem, the Fed’s greed is, and the ACE is only an agent of that greed.

Some people might argue that with these kinds of monetary stakes, maybe LSU should fire van Heerden for the greater good of the University, another cash cow with its 35,000 students and kick-ass football team. Of course, that line of reasoning makes perfect sense, as long as we unblinkingly buy into the unsaid assumption. It makes sense to fire him as long as the only ethical model we have to gauge this situation is cost-benefit analysis in terms of sheer dollars. I start from a very different place, namely, preventing people from dying and cities being destroyed.

Consider what will happen to the next guy in this position. Will he stifle the truth in order to not rock the boat even though it means that south Louisiana will flood again and again? Why does funding for LSU take precedence of the safety of the citizenry? Money is always a factor, but this entire line of thought is the exact same kind of logic that made the event what it was in the first place-- save money now, spend hundreds of billions in the future to repair the inevitable damage. Sure, ditching van Heerden means LSU gets its blood money for the next couple years, but the cost will be the re-flooding of New Orleans and hence the rebuilding of the city and the housing of hundreds of thousands of people. What is LSU going to do, get rid of everyone that wants to talk about the real reasons that New Orleans was made into a wasteland?

I think they can and they will, and this is my point. This attack on expertise is not about who is qualified to speak about what. The attack and firing of van Heerden isn’t even about tenure or academia; the ivory tower is so corrupt that it is the height of naiveté to look to it as a place of redemption for galvanizing the populace in the quest for truth. The firing of van Heerden is about getting rid of evidence so that the system that oppresses Louisiana and keeps the Feds happy continues. It’s about making the public un-safe so that the people of Louisiana will continue to do what they’re told, and therefore keep those royalties in the hands of the Man.

The officials at LSU are Bush cronies and lackeys, so what. Because that administration seemed to reward being incapable and mediocre is not my concern. We should ferret out stupidity in any form. And I hate to be a cheese ball and semi-quote Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, but I feel like LSU is so concerned with squabbling over scraps from the Feds table that they’ve missed their god given right to something better. Is the ACE to blame? Sure, sue them to hell if you can (the lawsuit against them started a few days ago; interestingly van Heerden is set to be a witness-- too bad his credibility is wrecked). But there’s plenty of blame to go around, and if you look at this situation with the right frame of mind, you’re bound to see that the ACE simply for what it is-- just another special interest group. They’re selfish and somewhat incompetent, but not the devil behind the strings.

If you want to save van Heerden, save New Orleans, and get the levees rebuilt correctly, then we have to get our own money and stop relying on the Feds and ACE. Everything else is just fingers in the dam. Any other path is folly.

Make no mistake, New Orleans will flood again, and then you will see what I am talking about. For me, it will be another day where I have to blink the tears away from my eyes and say “I told you so.”

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At 9:38 AM, Blogger Luis Portugal said...

Hello, I like the blog.
It is beautiful.
Sorry not write more, but my English is bad writing.
A hug from Portugal

At 10:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you said: "If you want to save van Heerden, save New Orleans, and get the levees rebuilt correctly, then we have to get our own money and stop relying on the Feds and ACE. Everything else is just fingers in the dam. Any other path is folly."

I agree but it is not possible to wrestle control of our flood protection from the Corps. We cannot even get them to let us review their engineering on our rebuilt structures.

To me, it ain't at all about blame. It is about vindication. Mine. The government wants you to believe my loss and deaths of loved ones was my fault and the fault of locals when reality is they did something to us that people normally go to jail for.

If we wanted our oil royalties we would need first secede. The way we are treated you might think that would be welcome by the rest of the country, if it weren't for their greed and willingness to screw us out our wetlands, safety and prosperity.


At 3:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

FANTASTIC post, Roger. this is as nuanced an examination of those tragic events (and causes) as the pulblic is likeley to ever get. Van Heerdon's integrity is unimpeachable, as is his science. He knows EXACTLY what it's like to have to wipe back tears and say "I told you so." For his courage and integrity, he's been made a scapegoat and had his name smeared even as he's terminated from his position. shameful.

~Doc T

At 3:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Charles N. Delzell, a professor of mathematics at the school, attended the meeting with Dr. van Heerden as president of the LSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and confirmed the broad details of the discussion with Dr. Constant, the dean. Dr. Delzell said, “It’s a clear case of retaliation for his criticism of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
In a statement, Vince Pasquantonio, the legislative liaison for, said the firing “actually puts Louisianans at risk,” because, “Experts will be afraid to speak out for fear that they will end up like Professor van Heerden.”

In an interview with NOVA ten months before Katrina, van Heerden expressed some of his worst fears as well as his understanding that the federal government, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in particular, were finally grasping the need to prepare for a calamity. But in interviews conducted in Katrina's wake, van Heerden's anger at the federal government's response is clear.

As Van Heerden remarked in his book:
"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…. 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."
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".

The decision has been brewing ever since van Heerden agreed to head the forensic investigation team in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, he said. Within days of the team's formation, van Heerden was frequently quoted in national newspaper and television reports, and most of his comments were highly critical of the Army Corps of Engineers' levee and floodwall construction policies and designs.

What YOU can do: Call LSU President John Lombardi at (225) 578-2111 and demand that he IMMEDIATELY reinstate Ivor van Heerden as Deputy Director and Marc Levitan as Director of the LSU Hurricane Center.

You can also sign the petition below urging the Chancellor of LSU to reconsider his actions, and urge all your friends to do the same.

~Doc T

At 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If ......... then we have to get our own money and stop relying on the Feds and ACE. Everything else is just fingers in the dam. Any other path is folly."
You could not be more correct. Why does everyone, including some of the other folks commenting think we cannot build levees w/out the USACE? Why, indeed does everyone seem to think we cannot do coastal restoration w/out the USACE? It is not necessary to have them to do either except that we foolisly keep thinking and allowing federal dollars for these activities to be funneled to the USACE. One through CWPPRA and one through WRDA. How foolish. That we can get federal dollars that we deserve and that we can spend as we see fit is obvious - see CIAP and federal revenue sharing - which some have argued for for many years.

At 9:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...we have to get our own money..."

Occam's Razor, kids. This is indeed the name of the game, and the USA, Inc. machine is the Military-Industrial Complex that "Ike" Eisenhower warned us about. Your starting point is the endgame. Checkmate.

At 2:47 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Roger this is Becky Kennerly, trying to find you. Would like you to come to the Pace Performance Festival in Statesboro, Ga. email me @


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