Alumni Profiles

Keeper of the River

Pearl Pierce Burke '39 has spent some long nights on the Mississippi, listening to bull alligators and dodging the occasional snake. "We'd pull in along the shore," she remembers, "and when we'd bump against the banks, the tree snakes would shake loose from the branches and fall into the boat."

Burke, who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans for nearly 40 years, chuckles at the memory. "That's what you get for being a woman back when there were only a handful of us in the profession," she says. "I was assigned to all the remotest jobs."

The May 1965 Alumnus, above, featured Burke in an article written by classmate Frank Heald '39.

At UNH, Burke was planning to be a lawyer—until she took geology. Her advisor discouraged her, but she "just kept on being stubborn." Burke's feisty attitude came in handy after moving to New Orleans in 1945 with her husband and two young daughters. The Army Corps offered her a job in soils testing. "It was such a low-level position, I declined," she says, but before long, they called back with a better offer, and Burke went to work on the river. She became the corps' expert on the hazardous spots—the areas most susceptible to erosion or caving. "It all depends on the angle of attack from the water," she explains. "You had to know what the river was going to do. If it eroded around piers, for example, you'd lose the piers and then you'd lose a bridge." Burke became the first female fellow of the Society of American Military Engineers and its first female national director. In 1969, her work won her a Meritorious Civilian Service Award.

Today, Burke lives in Biloxi, Miss., in a century-old house she shares with her daughter Judy Chestney. "She chose it partly because it was on high ground," says Chestney, who went with her mother to stay with friends in Florida just before Hurricane Katrina swept through last fall. When they returned, weeks later, their house was still standing. But on either side, where neighbors once lived in block after block of historic homes, nothing is left. "It looks like a bomb hit," says Chestney. The path of destruction stretches for 80 miles.

Still, it pales, Burke says, compared to New Orleans. "New Orleans is a city in a saucer," she says, a saucer whose bottom is 14 feet below sea level. "It's a city that never should have been built." Burke is quick to explain that the levees were not what caused the catastrophic damage in New Orleans. "Thirty-five feet of water came straight up through the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet like an arrow right into the heart of the city, overtopping some of the levees and causing the flooding." If the outlet—built to provide a direct shipping route to the Gulf—had never been constructed, Burke says, the surge would have traveled up the Mississippi and spread out. "It probably would have done about a quarter of the damage," she says.

In November, Pearl Pierce Burke '39 surveyed her neighborhood's hurricane destruction, right.

The storm and its aftermath have been heartbreaking, Burke says. After all, she devoted her whole career to protecting New Orleans. She worked each day with the knowledge that the safety and destiny of entire communities were inextricably linked to the water around them. "I loved my work," she says. "I wouldn't have traded it for anything." But she also knew, better than anyone, the power of water—and the potential for disaster.

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