Born in the Natal province of South Africa, Ivor van Heerden has been an adopted Louisianan for more than thirty years. During his years here he’s been head of the state’s coastal restoration program, on the staff at LSU, co-director of the state’s hurricane center and a head of Team Louisiana, which investigated the hows and whys of the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina.
Also along the way he’s been branded everything from an expert to a gadfly, an egomaniac to a Cassandra. While he predicted the damage a Katrina-like storm would have on New Orleans several years before it happened – thus his charge to investigate after the hurricane – when he came out very publicly pointing fingers at the Army Corps of Engineers for “shoddy engineering” his job at LSU was suddenly eliminated (“budget cuts” said university officials; he’s still suing to get his job back).
He’s stayed in Louisiana since he was let go from LSU more than a year ago because he’s invested so much time studying its coastline and because he truly loves the state and its wildernesses. Since the Gulf spill he’s been up and down the coastline and in the air above it, consulting with clean-up efforts.
When I find him in his gravel drive in a small town outside Baton Rouge he’s packing his car for Houma, home of one of the spill’s command centers. Despite a reputation as a nature lover he’s no fuzzy romantic and is calmly outspoken on everything from big hurricanes to big oil. He’d spent the day before on two flights over the Chandleur Islands, where oil had just come ashore.
%Gallery-95432%”This is absolutely the last thing we need, being the most important part of the year in Louisiana ecologically. Our wetlands are already in such sad shape and now we’ve got hurricane season approaching. It’s the growing season for the grasses and wetland plants that suck energy out of the surge, which help protect us from storms. And of course this is the time of year when the birds are breeding and the fish larvae are starting to enter the bays and estuaries.”
How bad was the view from the air? “It was truly impressive. Some of the slicks are huge – one we looked at was 10 miles by 2 miles, about a mile off the coast. If something like that came ashore it would be devastating.
“A worst case scenario would be that a tropical storm spins out next week and we have five, six, ten feet of surge and it drives that oil in and totally fouls a huge part of coastal Louisiana. In some ways we’re lucky it’s happening now rather than during the height of hurricane season, which is when we expected such a catastrophe to happen because a drill rig had been knocked over.”
Given his ongoing fight with LSU over his job – his request for a trial was turned down just a week ago, though he is appealing – I wonder if he might temper his outspokenness regarding assigning blame for the spill.
“Obviously BP, or Transocean are at fault since it’s their equipment that failed. Whether it was malfunction of equipment or human error, they are ultimately responsible. But we Americans share a fair amount of the blame. Most of us are in denial about the whole energy situation in this country so it is our fault as much as anyone else’s.
“But BP or Exxon or whoever else is not going to go drill in one-mile deep water if they can’t make money. It costs them billions of dollars to sink just one well. But they can make money because of our energy policy. If we could suddenly change it so that we all had solar panels on our roofs, use solar heating and so on, we would reduce the demand for this oil and it would become uneconomical to go into these deep waters and we could eliminate some of these problems. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, I honestly don’t. I think we’re just going to continue down this road until we have a major energy catastrophe when we are all of a sudden forced to change.”