Almost from the first moment Hurricane Katrina spilled over the levees and pushed down the floodwalls of New Orleans and surrounding communities, swarms of self-proclaimed experts have been diagnosing and theorizing and pontificating and gesticulating about it.
The absolute worst, in my opinion, is Ivor van Heerden from LSU. This guy has been on every TV channel and in every newspaper, widely touted as “the man who knew.”
Here’s what everyone should know about Professor van Heerden: he's never designed a hurricane protection system. He hasn’t designed a single floodwall, and he's never even designed a levee. That’s because he’s not even an engineer--he’s a geologist.
But Professor van Heerden has a lot of opinions about these things and he gives great quotes. That's what the media really like about him.
You’d think they would have gotten a clue back in November, when Geology Professor van Heerden announced that sheet piling at the 17th Street Canal was several feet too short—shorter even than what the construction documents called for. This was quite a shock to everyone, and the Corps of Engineers responded by actually pulling out several of those undamaged sheet piles just to be sure.
Well, right there on live TV the city held its breath while four piles were pulled and the truth was exposed: van Heerden the non-engineer was wrong. The good professor was conveniently out of the country at the time and could not offer a quotable response.
So now Geology Professor van Heerden has published a book about his exciting life and his sensational quotations. As a licensed Professional Engineer, I’ve never cared for his widely broadcast opinions on matters of engineering and design not only because he is not an engineer, but also because he is often wrong. But somehow, the publicity-loving geologist has remained the darling of media.
So imagine how disappointed he must be now that his own employer, LSU, has felt the need to very publicly and very pointedly distance themselves from Geology Professor van Heerden and his forays into matters of engineering. In a letter to The Times-Picayune, an official from LSU explains the uncomfortable position into which the non-engineering faculty member put the university:
During fall 2005 an issue with Professor van Heerden arose relating to his technical and professional expertise to comment on levees and construction matters because he is trained in geology and botany, and not civil engineering.
An issue? As a matter of fact, it is illegal to offer engineering services or to present oneself to the public as an engineer unless one is licensed by the Louisiana Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors Board. No doubt LSU was worried that the good name of the university might be spoiled by the Geology Professor’s wayward actions and they gave him a fair warning.
To make sure the point is understood that Professor van Heerden is NOT and engineer, the letter repeats this fact:
At the request of the Dean of Engineering and other members of the engineering faculty, we discussed this with [Professor van Heerden] and gained his assurance that he would not speak on matters for which he has no professional credentials or experience, like civil engineering.
I wonder how many books will he be able to sell now? I wonder how often The Times-Picayune will call him for quotations now?