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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Outspoken hurricane expert, Dr. van Heerden, who warned about possible Katrinas, sues Louisiana State University over dismissal

Outspoken hurricane expert sues over dismissal

by John Schwartz, The New York Times, February 10, 2010 
Last April, Ivor van Heerden, an internationally known hurricane expert, was told he was losing his job at Louisiana State University. He and other experts said it was because of his outspoken criticism of the federal government’s flood protection of New Orleans; the university would not comment.

Now Dr. van Heerden, the former deputy director of the L.S.U. Hurricane Center, is suing the university to get his job back. His lawyers filed a lawsuit in Louisiana state court on Wednesday morning, charging harassment and wrongful termination.

Dr. van Heerden, who was born in South Africa, joined the university in 1992 and rose to prominence as an expert on storms and the region, becoming a research professor and director of L.S.U.’s Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes.

In the years leading up to Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, he sounded alarms about the potentially devastating impact of a major hurricane on New Orleans despite 40 years of hurricane protection efforts.

After the storm, he vehemently criticized the Army Corps of Engineers on television and in print, arguing that engineering mistakes had caused breaches in the hurricane protection system that led to most of the death and destruction in New Orleans.

State officials named him to lead Team Louisiana, a major investigation into the causes of the damage from Katrina. At the university, however, Dr. van Heerden’s growing profile as an antigovernment gadfly was seen as a problem. One university official sent him an e-mail message, obtained by The New York Times, saying that he needed to help the state’s recovery, not point blame.

He said he was told by administrators that his verbal barbs against the federal government would lead to cuts in federal financing for L.S.U., and the university criticized him for speaking about levees without having engineering training. Last April he was told that his contract, ending in May 2010, would not be renewed.

In his court filing, he described “a multi-year campaign of retaliation,” and said that L.S.U. “placed the bureaucratic interests of university officials above the health and safety of the millions of people who live in the path of the hurricanes that threaten the Gulf Coast every year.”

The suit seeks monetary damages for Dr. van Heerden and continued employment, said David J. Marshall, his lawyer. The evidence, he said, will show that his client is not “the incompetent, irresponsible faculty member that his detractors and the administration accused him of being.”

University officials did not return calls seeking comment.

In an interview, Dr. van Heerden said that the university was “trying to deny me my freedom of speech,” but was also sending a message to other academics: “If you speak up on things that we are not happy about, we are going to get rid of you.”

Dr. van Heerden said that he had not found a new job, even though his last day is approaching. “I’m damaged goods,” he said. “I wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning — the thing that goes through my mind time and time again is, what did I do wrong?”

He said, “I thought it was my duty to speak out.”



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