State pays $892,000 over LSU researcher’s termination

Ivor van Heerden Show caption
Ivor van Heerden

State agencies have paid more than $800,000 in the case involving former LSU coastal researcher Ivor van Heerden to defend themselves against claims that he was fired after publicly blaming the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for most of the flooding in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Documents from a Levees.org public records request show that LSU paid Baton Rouge law firm Kantrow Spaht Weaver & Blitzer more than $457,000 over a 30-month period to argue the university's case.

The state Office of Risk Management paid van Heerden a $435,00 settlement last month.

In total, state agencies have spent $892,000 on van Heerden's case.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, van Heerden claimed that LSU officials systematically restricted his efforts to perform hurricane research and eventually refused to renew his contract because they feared he would cost the university federal funds.

The former deputy director of LSU's Hurricane Center accused the Corps of designing and building levees in the New Orleans area that were "way too shallow."

The lack of depth, he alleged, caused the structures to buckle and sag during Katrina's storm surge, resulting in mass flooding and drowning deaths.

On Sept. 15, 2005, more than two weeks after Katrina struck 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 the 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 that 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 evidence of what he described as "catastrophic structural failure due to bad engineering or bad design or bad construction or bad foundations."

The American Association of University Professors put LSU on its censure list in 2011 over van Heerden's 2009 firing.

The national organization of more than 50,000 members said his termination "raises significant issues of academic freedom, tenure and due process."

At the time, then-LSU Chancellor Michael Martin defended the decision not to renew van Heerden's contract.

"Although the decision not to renew Ivor van Heerden's contract was made before I came to LSU, I have carefully reviewed the process that led to that decision and am confident that the process was handled appropriately," Martin said.