Whatever Happened to Ivor Van Heerden?

When going back over When the Levees Broke for the recently due essay, I remembered a figure that Professor McCoy (quite a while ago) recommended we look further into. This figure is Ivor Van Heerden, formerly the deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, fired after Hurricane Katrina with no reason given.

In Levees, Van Heerden was the one who made the models predicting that the levees would break under the force of Katrina’s flooding. After the storm, he publicly blamed the United States Army Corps of Engineer, saying they were directly to blame for the deaths and damage done by Hurricane Katrina. This drew a lot of fire from Louisiana State University. He even wrote a book about it called The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina-the Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist, published in 2007. In 2009, LSU chose not to renew his contract (which ended in May 2010). The reason given was that Van Heerden was bringing bad press to the university, which would lead to decreased funding from the state government.

Van Heerden proceeded to sue LSU on the grounds that they were limiting his freedom of speech and that the Army Corps of Engineers were trying to defame him and ruin his career in order to hide their incompetence in maintaining the levees of New Orleans. The lawsuit cost LSU over $1 million, and in the end, Van Heerden was awarded $435,000. However, this was three years after Van Heerden filed his lawsuit. For a brief period of time, Van Heerden and his wife were living in a trailer while trying to sell their home to cover living expenses.  According to this same source, this is likely because the LSU wanted to avoid a federal trial and instead chose to pay damages.

However, Van Heerden doesn’t regret anything. “I’ve learned that for me personally, there’s a great satisfaction in standing by my principles, even if it costs me my job,” he says. “When I shave in the morning, I can look myself in the eye and be quite proud of whom I’m looking at.”

When writing this blog post, I thought it would be easy- just tell the story of Van Heerden and leave it at that. But, like pretty much everything in this course, his story connects back to “Echoes in the Bone,” specifically in the form of effigy.

Writes Roach, “I argue that performed effigies-those fabricated from human bodies and the associations they evoke-provide communities with a means of perpetuating themselves through specially nominated mediums or surrogates…” I believe that Van Heerden was made into an effigy in multiple ways.

The first aligns with the traditional sense of effigy, the creation of a ceremonial scapegoat in place of a real person to be burned or otherwise destroyed in their place. Van Heerden is a real person, but he was ceremonially made into a scapegoat for the failings of the Army Corps of Engineers and essentially burned like the likeness of a person in the form of the university destroying his career.

However, Van Heerden was made into an effigy in other ways. In the same interview cited above, Van Heerden talked about going to remote communities and villages and being recognized as the “hurricane guy,” and this is the role he wanted to play. He wanted to be the hurricane guy, the one who advanced research and did the right thing when things went wrong. Yes, Van Heerden was effigized in a way he did not want to be, but he also was able to choose what he wanted to perform as- the person who did the right thing and is recognized by the New Orleans community as the person who held the government responsible for their mistake.

In the end, the Army Corps of Engineers claim to have fixed their mistakes, though Van Heerden is skeptical. Now in forced early retirement, Van Heerden is an example of why awareness of effigy is important. People who become effigies are still people, and in scapegoating Van Heerden, LSU lost a great researcher and hurricane expert. Effigies serve a distinct purpose in society, but it is important to consider the impact on the lives of the effigized.

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