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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."
Van Heerden and his team of hurricane experts at LSU have other enemies, notably Big Oil's little sisters: The Army Corps of Engineers and its contractors. One internal University memo that has come to light is a complaint from the Army Corps 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 Corps, 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 Corps of Engineers on behalf of all the people of the city who lost homes and loved ones because the Corps-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 Corps 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 America's 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.
With LSU deep in the pocket of the corporate powers and under Army Corps 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] Corps 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.
Greg Palast's film for Democracy Now! "Big Easy to Big Empty: The Untold Story of the Drowning of New Orleans" is available as a no-cost download this week. Or make a donation to the investigative reporting fund and receive a gift of the DVD of the film, with Amy Goodman, signed by the reporter. For more information, go to www.GregPalast.com.