The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

SMU students gather around a bucket of markers to write an encouraging note to put in “Welcome to the Shelter” kits at event in mid-April on SMU’s campus.
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Morgan Shiver, Contributor • June 20, 2024

Engineer revisits Katrina

Although the city didn’t overflow with water, Dallas was flooded with Hurricane Katrina refugees in fall 2005.

Students from Tulane, Loyola, Dillard and Xavier all sought safety in Highland Park. According to the SMU Division of Enrollment services, “In three days, SMU was able to enroll over 200 visiting students from colleges and universities that [were] not be able to operate during the fall term” due to the devastating effects of the hurricane.

Although a handful of refugee students stayed at SMU, the majority transferred back to their schools in New Orleans for their spring semester.

But the storm is still at the forefront of some people’s minds.

Ivor Van Heerden, Deputy Director of the LSU Hurricane Center, reminded SMU students Wednesday evening that although New Orleans is livable now, it is still recovering from – and susceptible to – hurricane damage.

Van Heerden spoke in the Junkins Engingeering Building about the Louisiana hurricane protection dilemma and his new book “The Storm,” an account of how politics and a disregard for science and engineering crippled New Orleans.

In a thick South African accent, Van Heerden explained that much of the damage caused by Katrina was preventable.

“It was a man-made catastrophe… If the levees [in New Orleans] hadn’t failed, we wouldn’t be talking about Katrina,” he said.

There were “no warnings that the levees had failed even though the government agencies, including the White House, knew,” said Van Heerden. People went to bed and woke up with water next to their bed. According to the Deputy Director, “700 people drowned – Seven hundred people died because of the lack of response.”

As New Orleans began to rapidly flood, Van Heerden, went to the Louisiana governor’s office and expressed his concern. He told the governor there was too much water in the city for just one levee to have breached. In response, the governor commissioned Van Heerden to create Team Louisiana, which set out to investigate the levees.

Team Louisiana discovered that the Corps Engineers, responsible for building New Orleans’ levees, did not take into account all surge impacts and did not use computer models to aid them during construction. Van Heerden also found “evidence of cost-cutting measures” taken by the Corps. In an exasperated tone, Van Heerden explained to his audience that the Corps made the levees 40 percent too low, basing their measurements on old data. Had the levee walls been built 1.7 feet taller, water would have “over-topped for an hour instead of four,” he said. These simple changes “may well have saved a lot of lives,” said Van Heerden.

Van Heerden realized Katrina didn’t impact all of SMU’s students, but he said, “we are all still extremely vulnerable” to hurricane damage. The Corps of Engineers, which built the levees in New Orleans, built many others across the nation. Places like Galveston, Houston, Miami, Tampa and Long Island are all susceptible to flooding, according to Van Heerden.

To prevent future catastrophes, Van Heerden and his team of experts have devised a surge protection plan. Van Heerden envisions “well-designed burrier levees to protect homes and infrastructure,” and he wants to restore the wetlands and barrier islands to protect the mainland. He also advocates building floodgates much like ones in the Netherlands to control the water flow.

However, after several visits to Washington, Van Heerden has not received the funding he needs. The federal government wants one cohesive reconstruction plan out of Louisiana, and the state has failed thus far to create one.

Nevertheless, Van Heerden reminded his audience Wednesday night that although he lives in Louisiana, he is an American too, and “we deserve the best.”

Sophomore SMU student Erin Ramaker, who attended Van Heerden’s lecture, said, “It was a very intriguing lecture. I definitely would agree with Van Heerden’s statement that the problems associated with Katrina were linked to society and man-made issues. I found it incredibly interesting and somewhat heart breaking that people knew of certain problems with the levee system before the disaster. It almost shows how corrupt and amoral our society really is.”

Sophomore SMU student Matthew Heinrich added, “This had an important effect on SMU because we were able to meet and house so many of the Tulane students, many of which stayed here at SMU even after they were able to return [to New Orleans].”

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