There’s another floater. Four years on, there’s another victim face down in the waters of Hurricane Katrina, Dr. Ivor van Heerden.
I don’t get to use the word “heroic” very often. Van Heerden is heroic. The Deputy Director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, it was van Heerden who told me, on camera, something so horrible, so frightening, that, if it weren’t for his international stature, it would have been hard to believe:
“By midnight on Monday the White House knew. Monday night I was at the state Emergency Operations Center and nobody was aware that the levees had breeched. Nobody.”
On the night of August 29, 2005, van Heerden was shut in at the state emergency center in Baton Rouge, providing technical advice to the rescue effort. As Hurricane Katrina came ashore, van Heerden and the State Police there were high-fiving it: Katrina missed the city of New Orleans, turning east.
What they did not know was that the levees had cracked. For crucial hours, the White House knew, but withheld the information that the levees of New Orleans had broken and that the city was about to drown. Bush’s boys did not notify the State of the flood to come which would have allowed police to launch an emergency hunt for the thousands that remained stranded.
“Fifteen hundred people drowned. That’s the bottom line,” said von Heerden. He shouldn’t have told me that. 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.
So, even before Katrina, even before our interview, the professor was in hot water. Van Heerden was told by University officials that his complaints jeopardized funding from the Bush Administration. They tried to gag him. He didn’t care: he ripped off the gag and spoke out.
It didn’t matter to Bush, to the State, to the University, that van Heerden was right- devastatingly right. Exactly as van Heerden predicted, the levees could not stand up to the storm surge.
In 2006, I met van Heerden in his office at the University’s hurricane center; a cubby filled with charts of the city under water. He’s a soft-spoken, even-tempered man, given to understatement and academic reserve. But his words were hand grenades: the Bush White House did nothing about the levees, despite warning after warning.
Why? A hurricane is an Act of God. But a levee failure is an Act of Bush — of the federal government. Under the Flood Control Act of 1928, once the levees break, it’s Washington’s responsibility to save lives — and to compensate the victims for lost homes and lost loved ones.
By telling me this, the professor had to know he was putting his job on the line. This week marks the fourth anniversary of the drowning of New Orleans.
Shakoor Aljuwani of the Rebuilding Lives Coalition reminds me it is also the fourth year of exile for more than half of the low-income Black residents who once lived in the Crescent City. In the Lower Ninth Ward, 81% have yet to return.
And it marks the end of Dr. van Heerden’s career at LSU. They got him. Once the network cameras were turned away from New Orleans, as America and Anderson Cooper shifted attention to Brad and Angelina and other news, the University put an end to Dr. van Heerden. “In 2006 they started the nonsense — they stopped me from teaching. They tried last year to get faculty to vote me out.”
His contract was not renewed; he was forced out too, dumped along with the chief of the Hurricane Center who led the academics who supported van Heerden’s research. The Man Who Was Right was fired.
Cronies and Contracts
I did not seek out professor van Heerden about Bush’s deadly silence. Rather, I’d come to LSU to ask him about a strange little company, “Innovative Emergency Management,” a politically well-connected firm that, a year before the hurricane, had finagled a contract to plan the evacuation of New Orleans.
Innovative Emergency Management knew a lot about political contributions, but seemed to have zero experience in hurricane response planning. In fact, their “plan” for New Orleans called for evacuating the city by automobile. When Katrina hit, 127,000 wheel-less New Orleans folk were left to float out.
And van Heerden knew all about it. Well before the hurricane, I discovered, he’d pointed out flaws in the “Innovative” plan — and was threatened for the revelation by a state official. The same official later joined the payroll of Innovative Emergency Management.
When I asked the company, at their office, for a copy of the plan, they body-blocked our Democracy Now! camerawoman and called the cops.
Not everyone shared the harsh fate of van Heerden. Just this month, Innovative Emergency Management, the firm with the drive-for-your-life plan, was handed a fat contract by the State of Alabama to draft – you guessed it – a hurricane evacuation plan for Mobile.
The City That Care Forgot
After the flood, I filmed the uplifting story of Common Ground, the commune of Katrina survivors who, under the leadership of the community organizer Malik Rahim, rebuilt a shattered hulk of a building with their own sweat and donated materials. They housed 350 displaced families.
Since I broadcast that film in 2006, Rahim and the tenants were evicted by speculators who bought the building. Just before Christmas, elderly residents were carried out and dumped in the street, literally, by marshals. The speculators paid the families who build their new edifice not one dime.
We also filmed the story of Patricia Thomas, a woman fighting to return to her home in the beautiful Lafitte public housing project. Speculators have long lusted for this property on the edge of the French Quarter.
And now the speculators have it. Patricia’s home, unscathed by Katrina, was nevertheless bulldozed. As Rahim puts it, “They wanted them poor niggers out of there and they ain’t had no intention to allow it to be reopened to no poor niggers.” Their plan succeeded. Patricia, homeless, died last year.
This Friday, take a moment to remember a courageous professor, an indefatigable activist and the refugee families who once lived in what was once called, “The City That Care Forgot.”
Now, in 2009, you could call it the city that everyone forgot.