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The man who knew too much
LSU scientist Ivor van Heerden long believed it was a matter of when and not if a hurricane would devastate New Orleans.
He only wishes he had been wrong.
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
By Susan Larson Book editor

What haunts Louisiana State University scientist Ivor van Heerden most is that a disaster in New Orleans was inevitable. He and his colleagues at the LSU Hurricane Center predicted it. Advertisement

And after it happened, he knows the response could and should have been better. Planning for the future could be better too. After reading "The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina -- The Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist," readers will know it too. And not just Louisiana readers.

"There's definitely a need to get this story out," van Heerden said, "to get people to understand not only what went wrong but how vulnerable they are, because what happened in New Orleans could happen in San Francisco or Memphis or Long Island, with an earthquake or a flood or a storm. But this was the straw that broke the camel's back."

Van Heerden leans back in his chair at his office at LSU, where he is the deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center and founder of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes. He wears a blue LSU Hurricane Center button-down shirt, with its still-chilling spiral storm logo. The packed room is filled with pictures of his family, his sailboat, a computer, charts and books.

In his view, the remedies for New Orleans' problems are clear: better levees, modeled on the Dutch system; coastal restoration; and federal compensation to all families. Politicization imperils the rebuilding process.

The lessons are clear, too, for all Americans: "Ignore the science at your peril," van Heerden said. "This could happen to you, no matter where you live."

Such a disaster "wasn't a case of if, it was a case of when," he said. Before the storm, a book like his would have been just "Cassandra, Cassandra, Cassandra, sounding the warning." Now there's a new audience for learning what went wrong.

"We put out a lot of good science," he said, referring to the team of engineers, geographers, cartographers and computer scientists who contribute to the center's work in producing storm models. "We kept trying to get everybody to understand what could happen. Then when it happened, once we realized it wasn't one levee breach but the total sinking of New Orleans, we started sounding the alarms, and then the wheels came off, and there was no federal response.

"This shouldn't be happening. We're a First World country. We have great science."

Van Heerden also took part in the Hurricane Pam exercise, which predicted such a disaster and which served, he says in his book, "as a bible" for parish emergency managers such as Walter Maestri. "This wasn't a fluke; this had actually been trained for," he said.

So how is it that a spokesman for imperiled Louisiana is a native of Johannesburg, South Africa?

Van Heerden graduated from high school in his native province of Natal, then fulfilled his compulsory military service, during which he trained as a land surveyor. After two years studying engineering, he became a game warden, managing one of the country's largest wildlife preserves. Then he took a degree in geology and botany. But after a six-month sail across the Atlantic, van Heerden came to LSU, where he did his master's degree and his doctorate in marine sciences.

His professional experience ranges from marine diamond mining off the African coast to environmental management and administration there. In Louisiana, van Heerden has worked in the state Department of Natural Resources and as a consultant with the federal Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act program. He has led Team Louisiana, one of the five investigations into the failure of the New Orleans levees, the members of which, to his disappointment, have not been invited to participate in the state's planning process.

"The Storm" offers an accessible yet detailed overview of hurricanes, the levee system, the geographical vulnerability of New Orleans, coastal restoration, the politics that have been -- often disastrously -- intertwined with environmental issues, and disaster management. Van Heerden teaches an introductory course in the latter, taking his students through the paces of hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and industrial accidents.

It's a growth industry.

"When I first came to LSU, everybody wanted to be a petroleum engineer. That was obviously the future," he said. "Now emergency management is going to grow. As the population grows and we depend more and more on technology and the world's climate changes, the potential for disasters grows and disasters grow in complexity."

The book also offers his sobering view of the political machinations that he says have crippled the state's progress in coastal restoration. Van Heerden writes of difficulty working with the Army Corps of Engineers, of which he is an outspoken critic; of academic politics at his own university, where he is a controversial figure; and of the failed legislative initiative called the Pelican Commission, an acronym for Protecting Essential Louisiana Infrastructure, Citizens, and Nature, to determine appropriate funding for recovery and reconstruction. He harbors no illusions about the price of his straight-shooting style, and at times the university has barred him from speaking to the press for fear of endangering federal funding, he said. He is an untenured professor in applied sciences, continuing largely on soft money, and said that "I'm sure that none of us (at the Hurricane Center) are LSU's favorite children right now."

Van Heerden takes no obvious pleasure in his prescience, or in the barrage of media attention that made him a celebrity post-Katrina, but he is savvy enough to use it to his advantage.

"I don't watch myself on TV or listen to myself on the radio," he said. "There's no joy in seeing my face on TV, in hearing people say, 'You're right.' But it's still a matter of getting the story out."

For van Heerden, the facts of this particular situation have a human dimension that drives his obsession, fuels his sense of moral obligation.

"The thing that got me, the thing that still gets me, is that there were all the aspects of life going on in these homes, and just like that, it's all snuffed out," he said. "In one house there were these Barbie dolls, and my kids played with Barbie dolls. That really grabs you. Where are those kids?"

The racial implications of the disaster also struck a chord of memory with van Heerden.

"The whole time I was growing up was the birth of the anti-apartheid movement," he said. "I was a teenager, I was aware of the struggle. It was part of your life just about every day. . . . And so when we started seeing these desperate people at the Convention Center, mostly black, kind of being guarded by people in armed vehicles with guns pointed, crying for help, and their cries aren't being heard, one couldn't help but flash back to the scenes of one's youth. . . . Having grown up with apartheid, having seen it and smelt it and felt its pain, you couldn't help but see a parallel."

Van Heerden wrote his book at the urging of John Barry, author of "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America" and "The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History," who introduced him to his editor at Viking, Wendy Wolf.

Wolf, a native of New Orleans, knew exactly how important van Heerden's story was, and despite the demands on van Heerden's time, signed him up and paired him with writer Mike Bryan, who collaborated with Cal Ripken Jr. on "The Only Way I Know." Bryan arrived in the middle of Hurricane Rita and set to work with van Heerden; each wrote about half of the book.

Van Heerden has nothing but praise for his co-author.

"This got under his skin," van Heerden said. "For the first six weeks, he went everywhere I went, traveled with me, constantly asking questions. And when I traveled, I took a tape recorder with me and I would tackle his questions, topic by topic. We came up with a rough structure, but as we were writing this story, in some ways it was writing itself."

Now van Heerden is at work, with Center for Louisiana Studies Director Carl Brasseaux, on a book about the history of Louisiana hurricanes. "Maybe this will be a whole career change for me," he mused. It certainly would be one way to finance his dream of sailing around the world when he retires.

Like all residents of the Gulf South, he is dreading hurricane season, personally as well as professionally. He'd rather be outdoors on his sailboat or at home on his 10 acres in Satsuma than hunkered down over storm track and surge models.

"The levee systems right now won't contain a Category 2 system," he said. "If we had Katrina again, we wouldn't flood to the same extent. But as the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) pointed out, every single I-wall is suspect. . . . I've already had some state officials on my back for saying that, and I can understand that they want everybody to come back . . . but I really dread this season, and that's part of the reason I'm disappearing for two and a half weeks."

Van Heerden is taking his family to South Africa for a long-awaited visit to the places where he grew up.

Life, for van Heerden, is an adventure.

"I'm a little naive sometimes, but I'm very enthusiastic," he said. "You've got to keep pushing, and if you don't push and you don't try to make things better -- whether it's work or your personal life or your relationships -- then you might as well die, because then the adventure's over."

For most writers, the act of making a book is an act of faith, and perhaps even more so for van Heerden.

"Sometimes it was purely on faith that I got up the next day," he said. "Faith is extremely important to me. I was taking on the Corps of Engineers and the federal government, and I was seeing these blogs that said, 'Tell Ivor never to fly in a light plane again,' and things like that. And it wasn't just me, it was Paul Kemp (another member of the Hurricane Center).

"Right in the middle of this thing, I got baptized again," he said. "I felt it was something I needed to do.

"My batteries are completely drained. We'll get all the team together, hope we get state support, continue running the models and hope and pray that we don't get another big one in Louisiana, not for another 20 years.

"God has a plan. But who knows what's in it?"

. . . . . . .

Book editor Susan Larson can be reached at or at (504) 826-3457.