Friday, June 02, 2006

The Geologist

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?


Anonymous said...

Kind of reminds me of our old pal Tim Kusky.

Self aggrandizing pricks.

Mr. Clio said...

Okay, so I guess I'm officially considering myself schooled on this one.

I posted something bashing LSU for trying to shut him up. As a layman, I was just happy somebody was making noise about the crappy levees.

I'm still suspicious of what went on at that meeting. Based on experience, I'm not entirely trusting of university administrators and communications officers. They've often got interests that don't correspond with the greater good.

Anonymous said...

Van Heerden, associated with the LSU Hjurricane Center, has been a thorn in the side of the New Orleans Distict of the Corps of Engineers for many years before Katrina struck. For many years, the local Corps of Engineers has been calling Van Heerden a crackpot, alarmist, and trouble maker.

Meanwhile, you and I have been enjoying our pre-K lives assuming that the Corps knew their business. But, it turns out, the sheep (Van Heerden) calling wolf was correct. Our levee system wasis total crap.

Arrogent, know-it-all incompetent civil engineers caused the deaths of over a thousand Louisianians and destroyed over a hundred thousand family's homes all of their property, their businesses and the Corps continues to lie and fails to do what they promise.

And, remember. Civil Engineers are not as smart as you present them to be. In engineering school, everyone knows if you are not smart enough to earn a degree in any other engineering programs, switch to Civil - anyone can get that degree. Civil Engineers are the bottom of the barrel.

Anyway, if you knew what you were talking about, you would know that where the Van Heerden measured sheet pile length was a few hundred feet away from where the Corps pulled pillings.

The Corps will do anything and will tell any lie to absolve themselves of their criminal negligence. Corps engineers should be sentenced to mowing levees and should be forced to live in the lower ninth ward in a slab-on-the-ground home.

Tim said...

Perhaps you did not realize that I am a Civil Engineer.

I appreciate your comments, but you know I almost totally disagree with you.

Anyway, if you knew what you were talking about, Van Heerden hasn't told anyone where he took his "measurements." The Corps, the National Science Foundation, the Interagency Performance Evaluation Team, and the American Society of Civil Engineers, would all love to know so that they can do follow up tests. The geologist is mum.



Anonymous said...

so no-one will listen to him again huh! Well he his back on CNN for Gustav coverage, you should all have listened to him from the beginning!

Anonymous said...

Excusez-moi, but the web-site promoting the book states that Dr. Ivor van Heerden "holds a Ph.D. in marine sciences from LSU, where his research focused on the Atchafalaya River Delta; his ongoing research areas include disaster preparation and response, coastal geomorphology, environmental management, and habitat restoration.

As a civil engineer for more than 42 years, that's good enough for me. Unlike some of those above, I recognize the sub-discipline of "Marine Engineering." Simon Stevin, the famous Dutch scientist ("the Leonardo da Vinci of the North") would also have agreed.

Jacob de Raadt, P.Eng. (BC), PE (Arizona).

Anonymous said...

van heerden is balls on dead accurate.
i dont care if he has is an engineer or not.
he has brought to light things that no one would say for years.

the entire city of new orleans had been lied to for years and years about how protected we were by the levees.


Anonymous said...

The lead message in this thread cited Van Heerden as taking the position that "sheet piling at the 17th Street Canal was several feet too short..." Well, I read his book and a lot of other material and if I recall, there was evidence that the sheet piling at the 17th Street Canal was in fact shorter than specs called for and that was rightly investigated. The results were two fold. On one hand the sheet piling was found to conform to the construction specifications. But, it was also found that there were layers below which consisted of peat still in the process of compacting and therefor unsuitable as a foundation for the levee. It was otherwise reported that the construction company had averaged the strength of various such layers to determine overall strength rather than addressing the weakest link (in this case, layer). Consequently, replacement sheet pilings were installed down to a minimum of 50 feet (3 times the original!).

So it is clear that in fact the sheet piling was NOT as deep as it needed to be.

So, while Van Heerden may have been wrong, he was in fact right about the cause of that levee's failure. Frankly I think we are better served by someone with the courage to make the call when the potential is to save lives. The well being of the 17th Street canal levees is far from sure, especially on the west side.