U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval on Wednesday awarded seven plaintiffs $720,000, but the government could eventually be forced to pay much more. The ruling should give more than 100,000 other individuals, businesses and government entities a better shot at claiming damages.Far from this being an issue of the Bush Administration screwing up, it goes to the institutional and pervasive failures of the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain navigation channels in and around New Orleans, the failure of which resulted in the massive devastation and deaths in New Orleans as the levees themselves failed following Katrina passing to the East.
Duval sided with six residents and one business who argued the Army Corps' shoddy oversight of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet led to the flooding of New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward and neighboring St. Bernard Parish. He said, however, the corps couldn't be held liable for the flooding of eastern New Orleans, where two of the plaintiffs lived.
The ruling is also emotionally resonant for south Louisiana. Many in New Orleans have argued that the flooding in the aftermath of Katrina, which struck the region Aug. 29, 2005, was a manmade disaster caused by the Army Corps' failure to maintain the levee system protecting the city.
"Total devastation could possibly have been avoided if something had been done," said Tanya Smith, one of the plaintiffs. "A lot of this stuff was preventable and they turned a deaf ear to it."
The 36-year-old registered nurse anesthetist lived in Chalmette close to the channel when Katrina hit. She was awarded $317,000 in property damages, the most of any of the plaintiffs.
Duval referred to the corps' approach to maintaining the channel as "monumental negligence."
Specifically, the court found that the MR-GO channel led to the disaster by funneling water into levees that were incapable of dealing with the water levels.
However, there are limits to the ruling:
Duval ruled, however, that WDSU-TV anchor Norman Robinson and his wife were not entitled to damages because the corps' dredging of the MR-GO did not affect the levee system that protects eastern New Orleans from hurricane storm surge. That probably means eastern New Orleans residents would not be able to collect on claims they've filed against the corps, said attorneys representing plaintiffs in the case.Expect this ruling to get appealed to the 5th Circuit as the Corps' exposure to lawsuits based on this ruling could rise into the tens of billions of dollars.
However, the Corps is shielded from lawsuits based on levee failures as a result of a 1928 law giving the Corps immunity from such lawsuits. That means many of the nearly 470,000 claims against the Corps are likely to fail. However, those that can tie their damages to MR-GO are likely to pass muster.