Profile: Ivor Van Heerden
Positions that Ivor Van Heerden has held:
- Louisiana State University hurricane researcher
Ivor Van Heerden was a participant or observer in the following events:
Governor Mike Foster (R-LA) endorses the Coast 2050 plan (see December 1998) to spend $14 billion over a 20 to 30-year period to rebuild Louisiana’s coastal wetlands as a means of protecting the mainland from the full destructive force of a major hurricane. [Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/26/2002]
The Louisiana Board of Regents approves a $3.7 million grant to fund a five-year study intended to learn more about New Orleans’ hurricane risk. The newly-formed LSU Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes will manage the project. Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center, will serve as the project’s head. The project will consider and evaluate possible hurricane scenarios in an attempt to predict the impact of a hurricane strike, the preparations that should be made to prepare for such a strike, and post-disaster recovery. It will also work with health experts to develop plans for dealing with the anticipated health crisis that would result if the city were to flood. The project will employ the use of the LSU Hurricane Center’s supercomputer, SuperMike, to generate computer-based hurricane path and impact prediction models. “Once complete, the model can be applied to other sites nationally and internationally and to other disasters such as tornadoes, chemical spills, or terrorist attacks,” LSU Research reports. [Advocate (Baton Rouge), 4/21/2002; LSU Research, 12/2004] The project’s progress, however, will be impeded by it limited funds (see April 2002-2005).
Ivor van Heerden, director of the LSU Center for the Study of the Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes, presents the preliminary findings of a five-year study (see (April 2002)) of the hurricane risk to New Orleans at a special meeting held in the district headquarters of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The preliminary findings indicate that a third of the city’s residents would not evacuate in the event of a major hurricane. Of those who do attempt evacuation, many would get stuck in traffic despite plans to use both sides of the highway. The draft findings also indicate that a major hurricane strike on New Orleans would submerge certain parts of the city under as much as 22 feet of water polluted by a mix of oil, gasoline, and other toxic substances released from myriad storage tanks, cars, trucks, flooded homes, stores, and industrial sites during the storm. Wind would cause damage to most buildings, possibly destroying half of them. To mitigate the risk of such a disaster, Van Heerden recommends that federal and state officials revisit two previously rejected proposals to restore the Louisiana coastal wetlands. One of these proposals, which would reroute the Mississippi River to the east of New Orleans, into Breton Sound, had been blocked by shipping interests. The other proposal that should be reconsidered contemplated construction of a barrier wall along the Interstate 10 twin span bridge between eastern New Orleans and the adjacent city of Slidell to reduce the amount of a hurricane storm surge entering the Lake Pontchartrain. [Times-Picayune, 11/22/2003]
FEMA sponsors a 5-day exercise rehearsing for a mock storm, named “Pam,” that destroys over half a million buildings in New Orleans and forces the evacuation of a million residents. The drill is conducted by Innovative Emergency Management (IEM).
[Associated Press, 7/24/2004; Times-Picayune, 7/24/2004; Knight Ridder, 9/1/2005] It is attended by about 250 emergency officials and involves more than 40 federal, state, and local agencies, as well as volunteer organizations. As part of the scenario, about 200,000 people fail to heed evacuation orders. Pam slams directly into New Orleans bringing 120 mph winds, 20 inches of rain, 14 tornadoes, and a massive storm surge that overtops levees flooding the city with 20 feet of water containing a toxic mix of corpses, chemicals, and human waste. Eighty percent of the city’s buildings are damaged. Survivors crawl to the rooftops to wait for help, but rescue workers are impeded by impassable roads. [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 7/23/2004; Knight Ridder, 9/1/2005; New York Times, 9/1/2005; MSNBC, 9/2/2005; Associated Press, 9/9/2005] The flooding results in a massive number of casualties and leaves large portions of southeast Louisiana uninhabitable for more than a year. [Associated Press, 9/9/2005] At the conclusion of the exercise, Ron Castleman, regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, states: “We made great progress this week in our preparedness efforts. Disaster response teams developed action plans in critical areas such as search and rescue, medical care, sheltering, temporary housing, school restoration and debris management. These plans are essential for quick response to a hurricane but will also help in other emergencies.”
[Reuters, 9/2/2005] As a result of the exercise, officials come to realize how difficult it will be to evacuate the city’s population in the event of a real hurricane. They expect that only a third of the population will be able leave before the storm hits, in part due to the fact that up to 100,000 residents live in households without a car. When asked how many people might die in such a storm, FEMA spokesman David Passey hesitates before stating, “We would see casualties not seen in the United States in the last century.”
[Times-Picayune, 7/20/2004] In December 2004, a 412-page draft report summarizing the exercise will be completed with detailed predictions of what the government should expect in the event that a major hurricane strikes New Orleans.
Predictions - Flood waters would surge over levees, creating “a catastrophic mass casualty/mass evacuation” and leaving drainage pumps crippled for up to six months. “It will take over one year to re-enter areas most heavily impacted,” the report predicts. More than 600,000 houses and 6,000 businesses would be affected, and more than two-thirds of them would be destroyed. Almost a quarter-million children would have no school. “All 40 medical facilities in the impacted area [would be] isolated and useless.” Casualties would be staggering: 61,290 deaths, 187,862 injured, and 196,395 ill. A half million people would be made homeless by the storm. Storm “refugees” would be housed at college campuses, military barracks, hotels, travel trailers, recreational vehicles, private homes, cottages, churches, Boy Scout camps, and cruise ships. [Associated Press, 9/9/2005]
“Federal support must be provided in a timely manner to save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate severe damage. This may require mobilizing and deploying assets before they are requested via normal (National Response Plan) protocols.”
[Associated Press, 9/9/2005]
Top officials briefed - Ivor van Heerden, the Louisiana State University hurricane researcher who ran the exercise, reports that a “White House staffer was briefed on the exercise,” and thus, “there is now a far greater awareness in the federal government about the consequences of storm surges.”
[Louisiana State University, 2005] After the Hurricane Katrina Disaster, van Heerden will recall in an interview with MSNBC that the federal government didn’t take the exercise seriously. “Those FEMA officials wouldn’t listen to me. Those Corps of Engineers people giggled in the back of the room when we tried to present information.” When Heerden recommended that tent cities be prepared for displaced residents, “their response… was: ‘Americans don’t live in tents’ and that was about it.”
Follow-up - Another exercise is scheduled the following year, but it’s cancelled when its funding is cut (see 2005).
Hurricane Ivan approaches the Southern Gulf Coast. Residents of New Orleans have been urged to leave the city, but its evacuation routes are “spectacularly clogged, and authorities [acknowledge] that hundreds of thousands of residents [will] not get out in time.”
[Dallas Morning News, 9/14/2004; Washington Post, 9/15/2004] Terry Tullier, director of emergency preparedness for the city of New Orleans, explains to the Associated Press. “There is no plan that exists that will keep this logjam from occurring.”
[Associated Press, 9/13/2004] Notwithstanding, approximately 600,000 residents will successfully flee the city, [Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/8/2004] though for some the trip takes as long as ten hours. [US News and World Report, 7/18/2005] Ivan will make landfall east of Louisiana near Gulf Shores, Alabama, sparing the city of New Orleans from a catastrophe. [Washington Post, 9/15/2004] Hurricane researchers will hope that the close call will convince the federal government of the need to fund flood control and wetland restoration projects in Southern Louisiana. “Ivan was a real wake-up call. We have to take Ivan’s near-miss to get the federal government to fast-track some of these restoration projects,” says Ivor van Heerden, the deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center. [Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/8/2004]
Ivor Van Heerden, a scientist at the LSU Hurricane Center tells the Time-Picayune that the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina will weaken the Lake Pontchartrain levees and cause additional overtopping: “The bottom line is this is a worst-case scenario and everybody needs to recognize it,” he said. “You can always rebuild your house, but you can never regain a life. And there’s no point risking your life and the lives of your children.”
[Times-Picayune Blog, 8/27/2005]
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