LSU settles van Heerden case for $435,000

Ivor van Heerden Show caption
Ivor van Heerden

“I told my wife within four days of Katrina … that I am probably going to lose my job if I continue to tell the truth. She said she would stand by me.” Ivor Van Heerder

LSU and a state agency paid former coastal researcher Ivor van Heerden $435,000 to settle court claims that his LSU career was destroyed because he alleged engineering mistakes allowed New Orleans to flood during Hurricane Katrina, state officials said Tuesday.

The announcement was made at 6:11 p.m. in an email from Michael DiResto, assistant commissioner for policy and communications in the Louisiana Division of Administration. DiResto said the payment amount was provided by the Office of Risk Management.

In his three-year-old lawsuit in Baton Rouge federal court, van Heerden alleged that some university officials systematically ended his ability to perform hurricane research and eventually refused to renew his contract because they feared he would cost the school federal funds.

The expert in geology and marine science publicly alleged in 2005 that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers caused New Orleans to flood during Katrina’s assault by designing and building levees that were “way too shallow.”

That lack of depth, van Heerden said, caused the structures to buckle and sag, permitting the storm surge to drown hundreds of New Orleans-area residents.

LSU System President and Interim Chancellor William Jenkins issued a written statement in which he declined to comment on van Heerden’s allegations.

“While LSU believed its position in the litigation was sound, negotiations for a compromise settlement require both parties to evaluate a number of factors, including conflicting factual evidence,” Jenkins said in his statement. He said those factors also include “uncertainty as to how a jury would interpret the evidence, impact of court rulings and … uncertainty about the ultimate jury verdict, as well as cost of proceeding with litigation.”

Added Jenkins: “Since the issues between the sides have been resolved through amicable settlement, LSU will not engage in further debate of those issues. Such debate is no longer relevant, warranted or appropriate.”

Jenkins also would not discuss the payment to van Heerden. He said: “The defense and settlement of the van Heerden case was handled by the State Office of Risk Management. LSU is not at liberty to disclose the terms of the settlement.”

In telephone interviews, van Heerden and his attorney, Jill L. Craft, also declined to discuss the amount of his settlement check.

“It was a good win,” van Heerden said. “I think we achieved what we wanted: LSU knows it cannot deny academic freedom and get away with it.”

The coastal researcher said, “This wasn’t about the money. It was really about academic freedom.”

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco supported research aimed at protecting Louisiana residents from the storm surges that accompany hurricanes, van Heerden said.

“Once she left, the LSU administration decided it was OK to dismantle my career,” van Heerden added.

The researcher was stripped of his deputy directorship at the LSU Hurricane Center, and he was told in late 2009 that his university contract would not be extended beyond the spring of 2010, court records show.

More than seven years after Katrina, van Heerden said he remains convinced that he properly criticized the corps’ levee designs as too shallow to protect New Orleans from hurricane surges.

Was that allegation worth the loss of his LSU career?

“Yes,” van Heerden said immediately. “I told my wife within four days of Katrina … that I am probably going to lose my job if I continue to tell the truth. She said she would stand by me.”

Craft noted that van Heerden is a native of South Africa.

“Ivor and his family have a long history of fighting against apartheid,” Craft said. “This is a man of integrity, and he doesn’t back down from a fight. This lawsuit was about nothing more than standing up for what was right.”

Her client said his efforts were necessary.

“Those levees should never have failed,” van Heerden said. “Over half-a-million people lost everything overnight through no fault of their own. I spoke up on their behalf.”