One engineer's effort to tame a dangerous world

FLIRTING WITH DISASTER: On a recent field trip to the Gulf of Mexico, Bea was joined by New Orleans residents and Deepwater Horizon Study Group members Jimmy Delery (left), a Louisiana coastal advocate, and attorney Will Pearcy (right). Bea has investigated more than 600 disasters, including the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill, the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disintegration and the 2005 failure of the New Orleans flood control system following Hurricane Katrina. SOLLY GRANATSTEINFLIRTING WITH DISASTER: On a recent field trip to the Gulf of Mexico, Bea was joined by New Orleans residents and Deepwater Horizon Study Group members Jimmy Delery (left), a Louisiana coastal advocate, and attorney Will Pearcy (right). Bea has investigated more than 600 disasters, including the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill, the 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle disintegration and the 2005 failure of the New Orleans flood control system following Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Solly Granatstein.)Robert Bea’s got a problem. In fact, he’s got several: The Deepwater Horizon. Hurricane Katrina. California’s fragile 100-year-old levees.

These are just three of more than 600 disasters or disasters-in-waiting Bea has investigated in his 57-year career as a flood protection engineer, oil and ocean engineer, risk management specialist, UC Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on disaster mitigation.

His busy schedule got even busier after the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded on April 20, causing the worst accidental marine oil spill in history. In response, Bea formed the Deepwater Horizon Study Group (DHSG), which has been asked to provide results from its work to the Graham-Reilly Commission, appointed in May by President Obama to investigate the catastrophe.

The 73-year-old Texan has been traveling from coast to coast, investigating the site, serving on advisory panels, writing reports, and giving abundant media interviews for major outlets like CBS-TV’s 60 Minutes and the New York Times, hoping to make sure nothing like this accident ever happens again.

“There’s a problem to solve here: let’s solve it,” Bea says. “I tell my students, don’t focus on the personalities, or on your behind, or why you did this or that. Just work the problem. That helps you get focused on the right things.”

The 55 individuals Bea has assembled to work on the DHSG range from oil rig workers to graduate students and distinguished academics. As yet unfunded, the group works under the auspices of UC Berkeley’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management (CCRM), which evolved from Bea’s work on Hurricane Katrina with fellow Berkeley professor Ray Seed.

The group will complete its final report by December 1 but has already submitted two interim reports to the presidential commission concluding that the explosion was caused by engineering system failure, lack of regulatory oversight and “organizational malfunction.”

Human and organizational failures, Bea explains—like inadequate safety protocols, corporate hierarchies, conflicting egos or just plain laziness—are responsible for 80 percent of large-scale accidents.

Taking a big-picture approach, he believes, is essential to implementing critical engineering infrastructures that—like the Deepwater Horizon—have powerful impacts, designed to be beneficial but with destructive potential. Through the CCRM, he uses human psychology and other non-engineering tools to connect engineers with the social, economic, political and legal sciences.

“If you’re going to deliver the best technology,” Bea explains, “you’ve got to get all these groups working together.” The Deepwater Horizon Study Group, for example, is now consulting directly with high-ranking Washington officials to advise both government and industry on best practices and regulatory policies to better anticipate and prevent future disasters.

Through another Berkeley research center, the Resilient and Sustainable Infrastructure Networks (RESIN), Bea is working on the 1,100-mile system of earthen levees in California’s Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.

The highly developed region, the West Coast’s largest estuary, provides two-thirds of the state’s drinking water and is extremely vulnerable to flooding and earthquakes. RESIN is working to reinforce the Delta’s flood control system, not just its outdated infrastructure but also the complexities caused by the more than 220 government agencies that have jurisdiction in the area.

There, Bea says, he sees many of the same flood control system problems that existed in New Orleans; but this time, he hopes to address them before catastrophe strikes. His work on Katrina was particularly charged because he and his young family had to evacuate their New Orleans home when Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965. Reliving that scene was painful, he says, because lessons were not learned from the earlier storm.

“When I got back there,” Bea recalls, “I saw the people who had built a new home on our old foundation dragging oily, wet mattresses out of their front door, just as I had done 40 years earlier. That was an emotional shock.”

While working Katrina in 2005, he suffered what his doctors believe is a pulmonary fungus, presumably caused by the rampant toxicity, that is progressively damaging his voice. Nonetheless, he was back in New Orleans last spring to testify for three full days in a federal lawsuit. He believes the Deepwater Horizon incident will spawn similar lawsuits.

Whether exposing White House politics, leaking details of corporate misdeeds to the press, or testifying against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (his former employer, by the way), Bea tells it like it is. It’s all part of his crusade to neutralize individual agendas and make industry and government more accountable to the public and the environment they are intended to serve. But his greatest achievement, he says, is his Berkeley students.

“I had no plan in my life ever to end up in a university, much less teach,” Bea says. Ironically, after 30 years in industry, he came to Berkeley in 1988 to get a doctorate; instead he landed a tenure-track job on the faculty.

On campus Bea is famous for his killer CE180 course—Design, Construction and Maintenance of Civil and Environmental Engineered Systems—where students apply their engineering skills to real-world projects like building a center divide for the Golden Gate Bridge or designing a beach erosion prevention system for the California beach town of Pacifica. Students work in teams and tackle a demanding reading list that includes L.J. Dumans’s Lethal Arrogance, Human Fallibility and Dangerous Technologies.

“There are some really good people out there today working in all walks of life to help prevent miserable things from happening,” he says, referring to the hundreds of Ph.D., master’s and undergraduates he has taught and advised. “I get students in law enforcement, the military and doctors and nurses in my engineering classes. Last semester one of them did a beautiful report on managing risk associated with colonoscopies.”

From medical complications to global environmental catastrophes, Bea is inspiring intelligent and thoughtful minds to help make the world a safer place, one problem at a time.


Read the full story in Forefront’s fall 2010 issue, due to hit mailboxes on or about Nov. 8, 2010.