Louisiana State University is firing a leading hurricane scientist who was scheduled to testify as an expert witness in a case against the Army Corps of Engineers for their pre-Katrina work in New Orleans. Ivor van Heerden, who had been deputy director of LSU's Hurricane Center, says the school's former president, previously a Bush appointee, had earlier threatened to fire him if he testified.
Tenure exists, we are told, to protect the expression of views that are unpopular with the powerful. This is another case where the person who needed the protection of tenure didn't have it. LSU was able to fire van Heerden because he is an untenured Associate Research Professor.
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."
When van Heerden was first asked to testify in spring 2007, he said in an interview Sunday with Harry Shearer on KCRW's "Le Show," 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 been appointed to high offices by both Presidents Bush – George W. Bush named him head of NASA in 2001, and George H. W. Bush had named him acting Secretary of the Air Force in 1992.
According to van Heerden, the LSU president said that "nobody from LSU was going to embarrass the Bush administration or upset the major Republican companies that benefit from Corps of Engineers contracts."
The school has refused to comment on the firing, citing employee confidentiality as the reason. They did give van Heerden a terminal year – his employment will end 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. "For someone who has done so much for LSU and the state, this is uncalled for," he told Marc Schleifstein, the Pulitzer-Prize winning environmental reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
The LSU administration has been trying to silence van Heerden ever since he began criticizing the Corps after Katrina hit in August 2005. In 2006 he published a book critical of the Corps, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why during Hurricane Katrina – the Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist. In the book he described how the LSU administration had already tried to silence him. The New York Times ran a feature story in 2006 about that claim, after which LSU's vice chancellor for communications, Michael Ruffner, wrotea letter published in the Times arguing that van Heerden was unqualified to comment on the Corps's work because "he is trained in geology and botany, not civil engineering."
Nevertheless Van Heerden had been appointed head of the official state of Louisiana forensic investigation of the levee problems. That panel's conclusions about the failures of the Corps paralleled those of other scientific panels, including one from the National Science Foundation.
After van Heerden's book was published, according to the Times-Picayune, LSU made new attempts to silence him by changing his appointment from an academic position to a research one, which prevented him from teaching classes. LSU officials told him the reclassification also "prohibited him from making public appearances or working with government agencies," the Times-Picayune reported, but the school's administrators "backed off" after he told them his grants required him to "interact" with government officials.
O'Keefe left LSU in 2008 but the school's senior administration is still committed to his policies, at least in regard to van Heerden.
In the upcoming trial, scheduled to start in federal court 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, a shortcut for large ships between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, which led to the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans during Katrina. The Corps recently announced it was closing the Outlet as a shipping channel. A second trial will begin shortly after that – a massive class action suit seeking hundreds of millions in damages from the Corps.
Although LSU has officially blocked Van Heerden from testifying as an "expert witness," he says he can still testify as a "fact witness" in the trials.