Fired LSU professor releases emails in levee case

Federal court filings show some LSU officials were determined to curb LSU professor Ivor van Heerden’s public criticisms of federal engineers’ design and construction of New Orleans levees that collapsed and drowned hundreds more than seven years ago.

The damage was done by Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Louisiana-Mississippi Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, flooding wide areas of New Orleans.

Political pressure and fear of a potential loss of federal funding led some of those officials to strip van Heerden of his deputy directorship at the LSU Hurricane Center and eventually to decide not to renew his university contract in 2010, van Heerden contends.

The longtime expert in geology and marine science makes those allegations in his three-year-old lawsuit in Baton Rouge.

Those allegations are denied by LSU officials.

But email strings filed in the court record show some university and state government officials were intent on silencing van Heerden.

LSU’s attorneys — Richard F. Zimmerman Jr., Randal J. Robert, Jennifer A. Hataway and Julie M. McCall — argued unsuccessfully that hundreds of pages of those emails and other documents should not be entered into evidence during a jury trial that had been scheduled for Feb. 19.

And Jill L. Craft, attorney for van Heerden, argued unsuccessfully that van Heerden’s personal financial information should not be discussed at trial.

The coastal researcher and his wife own a 34-foot sailboat valued at $125,000, court records show.

After U.S. District Judge James J. Brady ruled Feb. 8 against exclusion of both sets of evidence, both sides informed him Feb. 11 that they had reached a tentative settlement of the dispute.

Brady immediately dismissed the case from his docket, but told both sides they could reopen the case within 60 days if they do not finalize the settlement.

Zimmerman, Robert and McCall were not in their offices for comment Friday, their assistant said. Hataway did not return a telephone message seeking comment.

LSU spokesman Ernie Ballard said in an email, “The university doesn’t have any comments at this time.”

And Craft said, “I can’t talk about it until after everything is signed.”

On Sept. 15, 2005, more than two weeks after Katrina inundated much of New Orleans, van Heerden sent an email to a list of recipients that included staff members of U.S. Sens. David Vitter and Mary Landrieu.

In that email, van Heerden said he had done an aerial assessment of levees in New Orleans’ London Avenue and 17th Street areas.

The coastal researcher concluded those levees suffered “catastrophic structural failure due to pressure bursts.” He said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrongly reported the levees had been overtopped by surging water.

Along the Industrial Canal, van Heerden reported, “are breachings, the longest 800 feet. All show plenty evidence of catastrophic structural failure due to bad engineering or bad design or bad construction or bad foundations.”

He added: “I believe it will be a long time before anyone trusts” the corps.

Randy Hanchey, deputy secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, received a copy of van Heerden’s assessment the next day.

Hanchey then emailed Sidney Coffee, Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s executive assistant for coastal activities and chairwoman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

“I think someone needs to call (LSU) President Jenkins and ask him to get his staff under control,” Hanchey said in his email. “This could be touchy as (Ivor) will undoubtedly spin this in terms of ‘shoot the messenger,’ academic freedom, etc.”

After 26 minutes, Coffee emailed Robert Twilley, director of the Wetland Biochemistry Institute at LSU’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Science.

“This is astounding and must be stopped!!” Coffee wrote Twilley. “This is grandstanding at its worst. This is not helpful.”

On Dec. 7, 2005, van Heerden emailed Twilley that he had met with Blanco for two hours that day and discussed “her testimony she will have to give later this week in DC.”

Van Heerden also wrote Twilley that he gave Blanco some ideas for “coastal restoration and the levees and how the (LSU) Hurricane Centers can further support the state.

“I will be reporting back to her after my trip to the Netherlands,” van Heerden said. “She thanked me for all that the Hurricane Centers have done since Katrina and Rita.”

The next day, Twilley emailed Coffee: “Passing this along to you. I assume this is connected to the allegations about the quality of the levee system.”

Twilley then told Coffee: “I just want the governor to know that Ivor was not involved in our coastal restoration team that (helped) the (corps) develop the chief engineer’s report. So, he does not represent the wider coastal science and engineering community.”

By Jan. 5, 2006, less than five months after the deadly flooding of New Orleans, it appeared that some LSU officials were preparing to end van Heerden’s LSU career.

George Z. Voyiadjis, chairman of LSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, sent an email that day to Zaki Bassiouni, dean of LSU’s College of Engineering.

“You advised me that you will need my signature on correspondence that the university is preparing for the purpose of discharging Ivor,” Voyiadjis wrote Bassiouni. “I will do as you requested. Let me know when to come to your office for that purpose.”

As van Heerden repeated his allegations against the corps, powerful figures at LSU intensified their expressions of dissatisfaction with him.

Roy K. Dokka, director of LSU’s Spatial Reference Center and Center for GeoInformatics, sent an email Oct. 24, 2005, to Michael Ruffner, vice chancellor of LSU’s Office of Communications and University Relations.

Dokka did not mention van Heerden by name, but told Ruffner: “I have been in Washington several times recently, meeting with the congressional delegation and federal agencies. In almost every contact, I am asked how so-and-so’s irresponsible behavior is tolerated.”

Dokka said, “It is a shame that so many very competent people at LSU who do their business in a professional manner are being sullied by a few.”

Dokka also told Ruffner that LSU “will remain in third rate category unless the ‘cowboys’ are (reined) in.”

In November 2005, Ruffner told van Heerden to direct all news media requests for interviews to his communications staff, court records show. But Ruffner rescinded that order after his staff was swamped with rapid-fire requests from the BBC, National Geographic Magazine, PBS NewsHour, Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and 10 other national, state and local news organizations.

After The New York Times published a story May 30, 2006, about on-campus criticisms of van Heerden, Ruffner wrote a May 31, 2006, letter to the publication’s editor.

Ruffner wrote that the article incorrectly “created the perception in some that Louisiana State University tried to limit Ivor van Heerden’s access to the press and silence his voice after Katrina. Nothing could be further from the truth.”