Economic Hit Men and the Next Drowning of New Orleans

Who put out the hit on van Heerden?

Ivor van Heerden is the professor at Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center who warned the levees of New Orleans were ready to blow — months and years before Katrina did the job.

For being right, van Heerden was rewarded with … getting fired. [See Katrina, Four Years Later: Expert Fired Who Warned Levees Would Burst]

But I’ve been in this investigating game long enough to know that van Heerden’s job didn’t die of natural causes or academic issues. This was a hit. Some very powerful folks wanted him disappeared and silenced — for good.

So who done it?

Here are the facts.

Dr. van Heerden has lots of friends, mostly the people of New Orleans, those who survived and cheered his fight to save their city. But he also has enemies, many of them, and they are powerful.

First, there is Big Oil. More than a decade ago, van Heerden pointed the finger at oil drilling as a culprit in threatening New Orleans and the Gulf Coast with flooding.

“Certainly he was critical of what the oil companies did to the coast,” Louisiana engineer HJ Bosworth told me. “Seeing what kind of bad citizens they were. Dozens and dozens of pipeline canals just carved the living daylights out of the coast just to find some oil.”

Well, we need oil, don’t we?

True, but Bosworth, who advises Levees.org, a non-profit group that birddogs hurricane safety work, explained the connection between flooding New Orleans and oil drilling quantified by van Heerden’s research. “Takes a million years to build (the protective coastal marsh); once you carve it up, it’s just like bleeding a wild animal, hang it up, carve some holes in it, and the juice just drains out of it. Saltwater and tide invade. You make [the state] susceptible to flooding from coastal and tidal surges.”

So I was amazed to learn that, shortly after van Heerden, wetlands protector, was given the heave-ho by LSU, a group calling itself “America’s Wetland” gave the university a fat check for $300,000.

After a little digging, I found that it wasn’t really “America’s Wetland,” the group with the oh-so-green name and love-Mother-Nature website, that provided the money. One-hundred percent of the loot, in fact, came from Chevron Oil Corporation. Chevron had merely “green-washed” the money through “Wetlands.”

Was this Big Oil’s “thank you” to LSU for canning van Heerden? The University refuses to talk to me about van Heerden’s firing (“It’s a confidential personnel matter”).

Bosworth notes such a grant to the University “doesn’t come without strings attached.” And this “Wetland” grant appears to have some tangled threads. LSU will monitor the coast’s environment, guided by a committee of what the school’s PR office describes as “experts” in coastal infrastructure and hurricane research. But the school is pointedly excluding its own expert, van Heerden. Instead of van Heerden, LSU announced it will rely on representatives from Chevron — and Shell Oil.

You can’t challenge Shell’s expertise on coastal erosion. The Gulf Restoration Network has calculated that the oil giant, “has dredged 8.8 million cubic yards material while laying pipelines since 1983 causing the loss of 22,624 acres.”

Shell too is a sponsor of “America’s Wetland.”

Bad Behavior

Van Heerden and his team of hurricane experts at LSU have other enemies, notably Big Oil’s little sisters: The Army Corp of Engineers and its contractors. One internal University memo that has come to light is a complaint from the Army Corp of Engineers’ Washington office to an LSU official demanding to know why van Heerden’s “irresponsible behavior is tolerated.”

By van Heerden’s bad “behavior,” they seem to be referring to the professor’s computer model of the Gulf which predicted, years before Katrina hit, that the levees built by the Army Corp were too short. The Army Corp, van Heerden asserts, compounded the danger to New Orleans by going shovel-crazy, with massive dredging and channel-cutting sought by shipping interests.

Following the complaint from Washington, the University took away van Heerden’s computer (no kidding). But they couldn’t take away his voice. He began to speak out. University officials do not deny they told him to shut up, to stop speaking to the press about his concerns. They were worried, they told van Heerden, that his statements jeopardized their government funding.

Van Heerden’s revelations were, indeed, damning. He revealed that the Bush White House knew, the night Katrina came ashore, that the levees were breaking up, but withheld this crucial information from the state’s emergency response center. As a result, the state slowed evacuation and stranded residents were left to drown. [See Big Easy to Big Empty.]

A class action lawsuit has been filed against the Army Corp of Engineers on behalf of all the people of the city who lost homes and loved ones because the Corp-designed levees had failed. Anyone with a TV and two eyes could see that. But the Bush Administration flat out denied it knew its system was flawed and refused any responsibility for the disaster.

Van Heerden, who had warned Washington, long before the flood, that the levees were 18 inches too short, would have been a devastating expert witness for the public. But the university ordered him not to testify, a relief for the Corps. (A verdict is expected soon in the non-jury case.)

The Army Corp and its contractors can feel safer now that van Heerden has been booted. His Hurricane Center will be downsized and instead, the University will expand its “Wetland” program, with Chevron’s checkbook.

Joining Chevron and Shell on the LSU board of “wetland” experts will be the Shaw Group, a huge Army Corp contractor.

If you’ve read John Perkins’ book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, you would know about Shaw Group, or at least the subsidiary for whom Perkins did his dirty work: an engineering outfit that used flim-flam, intimidation and fraud to turn a buck. (I once directed a government racketeering investigation of one of their projects before Shaw bought them up. In the 1988 case, a jury found the company was co-conspirator in a multi-billion-dollar fraud, charges the company settled with a civil payment.)

Shaw Group is also a sponsor of “America’s Wetland.” So is electricity giant Entergy Corporation. That’s the company that shut off the power in New Orleans during the flood, then sold the loose juice elsewhere, pocketing a multi-million-dollar windfall.

Yes, America’s Wetland does have a green cover, Environmental Defense, exposed in the Guardian UK in 1999 for its icky habit of licking the sugar off corporate candy canes. We caught them trying to set up a lucrative financial operation with the very polluters they were supposed to be challenging. [See Fill your lungs it's only borrowed grime]

I spoke with the Chairman of American Wetland, King Milling. Milling’s just a local good ol’ boy, a sincere guy, not a front for Big Oil. But he naively let his group be used to buy the debate over the environment and ice out un-bought experts like van Heerden.

Flood Warning

With LSU deep in the pocket of the corporate powers and under Army Corp pressure, van Heerden didn’t stand a chance. For doing nothing more than trying to save a few thousand lives, he has paid quite a price. As he told me this week from his home, “No good turn goes unpunished.”

That’s van Heerden’s fate. But what about the city’s? Is New Orleans ready for another Katrina?

His answer is not comforting: “No, definitely not. If anything, it’s worse than when Katrina hit. We’ve lost a lot of wetlands protection. It’s not very safe … A section of the flood wall itself has sunk about 9 inches, a result of [Hurricane] Gustav.”

Is anyone listening?

“The [Army] Corp won’t talk to me,” says van Heerden. “Like everybody else, they are crossing their fingers and hoping we don’t have a storm.”

Well, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

  • Read Part 1.
  • Greg Palast studied healthcare economics at the Center for Hospital Administration Studies at the University of Chicago. His investigative reports can be seen on BBC Television's Newsnight. Read other articles by Greg, or visit Greg's website.

    14 comments on this article so far ...

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    1. Joe said on August 28th, 2009 at 10:55am #

      It is Army Corps, not Army Corp. The “s” is silent, but part of the word

    2. Frances said on August 28th, 2009 at 4:16pm #

      Thanks Greg,

      Great stuff as usual. I live behind a levee in SF Bay area and became obsessed with watching hurricane related scientific and news related info on the internet before, during and after Katrina.

      Ivor’s honesty and expertise was immediately obvious to me and I watched his computer model run before Katrina hit and felt like I was there. So sad about the kabosh on the computer model. It was a fantastic technological tool that set an example for what could be done in other places . . including right here in SF Bay where sea level rise is going to be a huge issue for development allowed on filled wetlands.

      Ivor’s post Katrina investigation with UC Berkeley scientists put the lid on Army Corps/ government lies. He is my number one hero ’cause he is such a stubbornly honest and ethical dutchman ! (Yes I know he is from S Africa, but he has those stubborn dutchman genes :>)

    3. Bob said on August 31st, 2009 at 6:43am #

      The article although well written, it reads like a spy thriller, but doesn’t make any sense. How is it that no local authorities had any idea the levees would collapse? Are we to believe they are that stupid? If that was so why evacuate at all? Most would have just stayed put and road out the storm, instead of picking up and leaving. The wind damage in New Orleans was minimal, in fact I read a story of two women from my area that road out the storm in a downtown hotel room. It wasn’t fun but they survived unscathed. Nearly all the damage was caused by the flooding, do to the levees being topped in several areas and collapsing in a couple of others(at least that’s what the weather channel claims). All being caused by the heavy rain falling and filling into the large lakes north of the city. Adding to the problem , a portion of the power grid was down due to wind, this knocked out the pumping system. With the effects of unrelated problems adding up, you get a disaster, in one area of New Orleans. it had nothing to do with the coast areas, which are south of the city. The storm surge didn’t cause any damage in the city, at least not like it did in parts of Mississippi. Where it wiped out whole parts of the coast line. I guess I go back to my original thought, it reads like a thriller, with intrigue and conspiracy, but not really the way things happened. Have a great day.

    4. Old Geezer Pilot said on August 31st, 2009 at 7:38am #

      There’s a saying that Louisiana politicians are more crooked than the Mississippi. Federal money has been pouring into NOLA for a half century, ostensibly to repair and maintain the levees and locks. Let us not forget that lake Ponchartrain is 10 feet ABOVE sea level; lose a single retaining wall and you have the lake in your living room.

      Did the duly elected officials spend that money wisely? Nah. They used it to build boat docks for themselves, or funneled it to other “needy projects”.

      I’m sure BigOil has degraded the protection from the delta, but let’s not forget that NOLA was not drowned by a storm – it was drowned by Lake Ponchartrain after WWII era protection devices failed for lack of care and maintenance.

    5. b99 said on August 31st, 2009 at 12:08pm #

      Bob – You say wind damage was minimal yet admit it knocked out the power grid.

      There are no unrelated problems in a disaster.

      The White House had been advised by the head of NOAA that Katrina had the potential to do grave damage to New Orleans and environs. The Feds also knew that the levees had been breached in the wee hours but alerted no one. Not a shining moment for the Bush Administration.

      The principal victims of Katrina were the aged. No one looks out for the aged.

    6. Frances said on August 31st, 2009 at 3:29pm #

      Bob said:
      “the damage was caused by the flooding, do to the levees being topped in several areas and collapsing in a couple of others”
      Absolutely True !
      Bob also said: “All being caused by the heavy rain falling and filling into the large lakes north of the city”
      Absolutely Not True ! The hurricane generated a huge storm surge (high tide) that came roaring in from the Gulf. Which was totally expected by the way.

      In part one Greg Palast says:
      The professor was already in trouble for saying, publicly, that the levees around New Orleans were no good, too short, by 18″. They couldn’t stand up to a storm like Katrina. He said it months before Katrina hit – in a call to the White House, and later in the press.”

      Ivor’s dept at LSU also ran Storm Surge Computer models to show what he knew would happen. Those models showed the overtopping of the levees that were too low. The area where the levees were too low were in POOR neighborhoods like the 9th ward. The people in well to do NOLA neighborhoods knew this . . and most were not concerned . . and of course they all left in their vehicles.

      What those people did NOT expect was that the the levees in better neighborhoods would collapse due to bad engineering . Water exerts a huge pressure which levees that high can only withstand if they are built properly. Which they were NOT. It was those levee failures that lead to the flooding of areas of NOLA that were unexpected like Lakeview, etc. etc.

      I live in SF Bay Area and I was not surprised because I read before Katrina hit about a lawsuit where the Army Corps had knowingly allowed incompetant construction.

      It is all about politics, power and money, lies, and lack of ethics. That is why it happened and things like that will continue to happen in this country. Sad but true.

    7. B99 said on August 31st, 2009 at 4:01pm #

      And of course, Frances, almost all the autos in the wealthier neighborhoods were insured – so autos left behind were covered. In the L9W and other neighborhoods, many did not have cars – nor gas money. They have not come back.

    8. Bob said on September 1st, 2009 at 6:54am #

      Hi all:
      b99; Power lines get taken out by storms all the time, for example by falling branches, or up rooted trees. that is called minimal damage. It doesn’t take out the entire grid, it knock parts of it out, which may effect thousands of customers. Happens every year in the Midwest. Flooding on the other hand, knocks out substations, and requires the power grid to be shut down due to safety concerns.

      Frances; The storm surge did most of its damage on the coast of Mississippi, it was mostly the water from lake Ponchartrain, which lies directly north of the city that did the damage in New Orleans. Check it out, the London Street canal 17th Street canal come to mind, and remember the first reports and video of the downtown area of New Orleans were quite positive, they had dodged the bullet. People were videoed walking around the streets downtown, there was damage and debris, but nothing like what happened on the Mississippi coast, which razed nearly everything in its path. That didn’t happen in New Orleans.

      Have a great day!

    9. b99 said on September 1st, 2009 at 8:20am #

      Bob – So you are validating Palast’s point that van Heerden’s warning that the levees could not hold went unheeded. Storm surge certainly went up the canals – and if the surge did not effect Ponchartrain the lake certainly overflowed from rain. Either way….

    10. Bob said on September 2nd, 2009 at 5:57am #

      Good morning All:

      b99, that storm dumped up 15 inches of rain in areas north of New Orleans, all that rain flowed into the lakes and canals. It had to go somewhere. How high do we build the levees to withstand that type of storm? Maybe it would be cheaper to raze most of New Orleans and relocate many of the inhabitants to other areas. Just a thought. Besides I’ll bet that van Heerden keeps his job, his contract expires next year, and he’s appealing it’s non-renewal. From what I’ve read, he got involved in office politics, and offended a couple of the bosses. They retaliated, like the children they are, and fired him. Why? Because they can. If he did predict the topping of the levees before the storm I commend him, but to say in the article that the Bush administration was conspiring to withhold vital information from local authorities is ludicrous. Time to go beat a new dead horse. Have a great labor day weekend. Bob

    11. b99 said on September 2nd, 2009 at 6:16am #

      Bob – The actual levee height is secondary to knowing how secure they are. The Army Corps did a poor job in construction, the Feds did a lousy job of allocation of funds, the feds and local gov’ts did a lousy job of looking out for our citizenry. The almost certainty of such a disaster was predicted well in advance, and as the storm bore down on the Gulf Coast NOAA chief sat with Bush Administration. They went golfing and shopping and the local officials turned to god or something. The Bushies withheld info in the hopes that the storm would not hit New Orleans and thus spare themselves embarrassment. The storm cooperated but the patient died from complications. And why would it be ludicrous for Bushies to conspire? Remember, this is a group that appointed a crony – a friendly horse judge, to head up the operation.

      This is no dead horse. Nor should it be. If lessons are not learned, your town may be next.

    12. Ivan said on October 4th, 2009 at 10:03am #

      My town won’t be next, or will most places in America. The local levee boards used political influence to stop the floodgates being construted, that would have stopped surging waters going up the canals That happened in the 1990’s, & some in New Orleans are still trying to cover that up today, some with connections to ACORN. Igor got the shaft, a raw deal LSU wants lots of federal booty. It is prostituting itself. Greg is correct on that, and the Corps in D C are hit men, but they operated with influence peddlers from La I have seen first hand how corrupt the Corps is in D C, it is so bad Greg only skimmed the surface, but he is on the right tract.

    13. Ivan said on October 4th, 2009 at 10:19am #

      Brownie, the Colorado ex horse judge, had nothing to do with levees, or floodgates. FEMA had nada to do with constructing any levees in N O. B99 is all wet whipping the Brownie horse. He might make more hay by asking: what is the purpose of a floodgate, a different animal than a levee. Ergo: floodgates not in pre August 2005, contrasting, put in post 2005, after Katrina

    14. Shrimper said on October 4th, 2009 at 6:40pm #

      This is a most interesting piece.
      One of the big experts investigating the wake of Katrian was Bob Bea of U C Berkeley. He was Shell Oil’s top engineer in the Gulf, before he floated out to U C Berkeley. His first engineering job was working for the Corps of Engineers.
      One of the hit job slants on van Heederen is he is not a design engineer.
      However, nobody disputed van Heddeern’s modeling on the major surges of water from storms, his excleent work in that area.
      The forces that produces on man made structures..
      I now see all the Shell Oil platforms laid waste by CAINS, and Bea giving his spin on risk assessments.(in some engineering articles).
      Bea’s colleague at U C Berkeley wrote a long letter framed as a complaint against the major Engineering Association in America, and blasting it on coverups. He actually used the word “murder” in hs long letter( Letter of Dr Ray Seed). Google it up, he ended his letter with it may get in untrustworthy hands like some CLUB thing, he was doodling with.
      Nothing came of Seed’s ethics compalint, it was just laughted off by the big honcho’s in the Engineering Society.
      Some focusing soley on soil dynamics, some focusing on sheet piling, none of that goes to the bigger picture.
      Here is a question for Greg, or AMERICA @ Large: how many billions did Shell Oil wire off to its offshore accounts from the Gulf Production, (out in the coast off from New O), while the Bush/ Cheney Administration put the kabosh on MMS collection vast royalites, while a vast scandal was going on in the Dept of Interior, as now the ex Bush Secretary of Interior is now under investigation for criminal deeds(alleged), it is still under investigation. She went to work for Shell Oil, after leaving the Bush Administration.
      Greg you need a part 3, 4, 5, 6 there is so much here of unplowed ground, still to uncover……………………………………………