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LSU defends cutting van Heerden’s post in hurricane center



Kudos for student journalism!

Caption: Robert Twilley, associate vice chancellor of research and economic development at LSU, director of the Coastal Systems and Society Initiative and professor of coastal sciences.
Robert Twilley, associate vice chancellor of research and economic development at LSU, director of the Coastal Systems and Society Initiative and professor of coastal sciences.

photo: Jim Zietz, LSU Public Affairs

On April 23 the LSU student newspaper the Daily Reveille published an important scoop by staff writer Joy Lukachick regarding the highly controversial removal of Ivor van Heerden from his position as associate director of the LSU Hurricane Center, which is being renamed and relocated and will – at least temporarily – be directed by Joseph Suhayda, Ph.D., oceanographer and retired professor of civil engineering.  

So far, the only official university response with any detail is based on comments from Office of Research and Economic Development Vice Chancellor Brooks Keel and Associate Vice Chancellor Robert Twilley. 

Both men defended the changes, with Twilley saying that van Heerden wasn’t actually fired but that his associate director position with the center had been eliminated after its director Marc Levitan had resigned his post. Forgive me but that sounds like a distinction without a difference.

Twilley implied that the changes were being made in the interest of expanding the role of the hurricane center, connecting it more closely to coastal research and ensuring its coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the governor’s office of coastal protection and restoration.

Robert Twilley is an experienced coastal ecologist who wears several hats. In addition to his associate vice chancellor position he heads LSU’s Wetlands Biogeochemistry Laboratory, the so-called flooded soils lab, in which seminal research on coastal wetland plants and soils is carried out. Since coming to LSU from ULL he has played a rapidly expanding coastal policy role for the state, in addition to his science role as the leader of a team effort to address coastal issues, using the emerging areas of ecosytem restoration and ecological engineering. 

I have long admired and respected Dr. Twilley. In fact, some years ago while I still had a modicum of coastal political influence I led the effort to recruit him into the “inner sanctum” of coastal policy. I have the feeling that he drew the short straw in terms of commenting on Ivor’s fate.

Anyhow, I remain mystified why the flagship university for the state facing the most challenging coastal problems in the country would turn its back on van Heerden, a recognized and highly qualified coastal thinker (and sometimes critic) re state and federal restoration policy. Our science capacity should be expanding, not contracting!

Presumably this Reveille article will only pique the interest in, crtiticism of and curiosity about the circumstances of Ivor’s “release,” however it is characterized.  In the long run I seriously hope that an important role can be created for Ivor that befits his knowledge, his public support – and his candor.

Len Bahr

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  1. Awesome stuff you developed here.

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  3. Len Bahr says:

    Check out this podcast from Jim Engster's WRKF-FM radio interview on April 28 with Gov. Jindal's coastal advisr Garret Graves. One of the questions involves Ivor's firing.

  4. Eliminating the position is a well known bureaucratic ploy to get rid of someone you don't particularly care for, but don't have a defensible reason to fire. Gosh, Bob, now that it was necessary to eliminate that position, guess you don't have a job any more. Have a nice day!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Per the DR: "The University is restructuring the Hurricane Center, and one of its main goals will be to work with FEMA to receive grants for research about the five levee parishes, according to the Office of Research and Economic Development officials. The Corps was responsible for building the levees." LSU is now pursuing its goals with two other critics of FEMA/Corps (Suhayda/Dokka) at the helm of university surge protection research efforts Suhayda/Dokka are taking on FEMA/Corps over the recent DFIRM work. So much for LSU not foistering FEMA/Corps criticism. In addition to chutzpah, Suhayda/Dokka have academic credentials and institutional support (unlike Ivor). Interestingly, they've both taken quite a bit of post-Katrina FEMA/Corps money–and somehow maintained their academic integrity! Another interesting fact is that all 3 have spent their "surge years" at the LSU Dept of Civil Engineering–but are non-engineers. Here's to the new dynamic duo and the Civil Engineering Department that keeps cranking them out!

  6. Michael Tritico says:

    The political leadership in Louisiana remains in a state of denial. Sadly, no matter how much science is inserted into the decisionmaking process, no matter how many years of impassioned testimonnies we submit pleading for reason and logic, the inertia of contrived ignorance will continue. We can see that even after what, the 25th inundation of New Orleans, there is still energy being wasted contending that it can be restored and protected. A deathtrap is a deathtrap. Thanks Dr. van Heerden, Percy Viosca, and to all you other courageous people who, through the years, have tried to prevent further drownings and ecosystem ruination. It is not a wasted effort, just part of mankind's very slow learning process.

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