Katrina Flooding Victims’ Lawsuit Against Corps of Engineers Begins

April 21, 2009

Arguments began April 20 in a lawsuit filed by New Orleans residents and a business who claim the Army Corps of Engineers owes them damages because of the massive flooding after Hurricane Katrina that stirred up the waters and washed out levees along a 75-mile (120-kilometer), man-made shipping channel dubbed “hurricane highway.”

Much is at stake in the trial, which will be heard and decided by a judge, not a jury: If the plaintiffs are victorious, more than 120,000 other individuals, businesses and government entities could have a better shot at claiming billions of dollars in damages.

The residents argue the corps’ poor maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a shipping channel dug in the 1960s as a short-cut between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans, led to the wipeout of St. Bernard Parish and the city’s Lower Ninth Ward when Katrina struck in August 2005. They are asking for damages between $300,000 and $400,000 for each individual.

Lucille Franz, 75, lost her home in the Lower 9th Ward, and her sister drowned at St. Rita’s nursing home in St. Bernard near the MRGO, also know as “Mister Go.”

“They are responsible,” she said of the corps. “We wouldn’t have had that kind of water if it hadn’t been for the MRGO.”

The corps has argued that it is immune from liability because the channel is part of New Orleans’ flood control system, but the judge has allowed the case to move forward because residents claim the shipping channel was a navigation project.

The four-week trial will explore in detail the natural history, engineering and politics of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.

The outlet was authorized in 1958 by Congress. The route went through largely pristine wilderness of marsh and swamp forest southeast of New Orleans.

Scientists say its construction destroyed about 18,000 acres (7,300 hectares) of marsh and 1,500 acres (600 hectares) of cypress swamps. The economic benefits never paid off, and few ships used it before Katrina. After the channel was built, larger vessels continued to use the Mississippi River because a bigger lock to the MRGO was never built.

The corps has acknowledged the area’s flood risk, and is in the process of closing the MRGO with rocks. The corps is also building a $1.3 billion floodgate.

“It’s really something the people of St. Bernard and the Lower 9th Ward, and New Orleans East, everybody in that area, have needed for a long time. What happened there should not happen in the United States of America,” said plaintiffs’ attorney John Andry. “It’s the largest preventable catastrophe in American history.”

The Department of Justice is defending the corps, but lawyers declined to comment. In court documents, the government has argued that Katrina’s massive storm surge, not the MRGO, caused the catastrophic flood.

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