NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' failure to maintain a navigation channel led to massive flooding in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, a federal judge ruled late [Wednesday].
The decision could make the federal government the target of billions of dollars worth of legal claims by more than 100,000 other individuals, businesses and government entities that also sustained damages from the water that inundated 80 percent of the city when the levees protecting the low-lying city were breached in several places.
Katrina made landfall August 29, 2005 in southeast Louisiana as a Category 3 storm. At least 1,836 people lost their lives in the hurricane and in the subsequent floods. Damage estimates were well in excess of $100 billion.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval ruled in favor of six residents and one business who claimed that the Corps' inadequate oversight of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet led to the flooding of New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward and neighboring St. Bernard Parish.
Judge Duval called the Corps' approach to maintaining the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet "monumental negligence."
"Clearly, the Corps failed to maintain and operate the MRGO in a manner so as not to be a substantial factor in the destruction of the Reach 2 Levee," wrote the judge in his 189-page ruling.
"In addition, it failed to take action that it could have taken to place foreshore protection using the very operation and maintenance funds which proved to be sufficient to fund these actions in the 1990s," he wrote. "Instead, it ignored the safety issues for the inhabitants of the region and focused solely on the maritime clients it serviced so well."
"Futhermore," wrote the judge, "the Corps failed to notify Congress of the dangers which it perceived or should have perceived in the context of environmental damage to the wetlands caused by the operation and maintenance of the MRGO..."
However, Judge Duval held that the Corps was not responsible for the flooding of eastern New Orleans, where two of the plaintiffs lived. But St. Bernard Parish, one of the more devastated areas, lies just south of the MRGO.
During the trial in May, the plaintiffs' experts told the court that the MRGO outlet became a "hurricane highway" that funneled storm surge into New Orleans. They said that without the channel, the flooding would have been minimal.
Government experts argued that Hurricane Katrina would have overwhelmed the levees and floodwalls with or without the contributing effect of the MRGO.
Judge Duval rejected the Corps' argument and awarded the plaintiffs a total of $720,000.
Tanya Smith, a nurse anesthetist who lived in Chalmette close to the MRGO, was awarded $317,000 in property damages, the largest amount of any of the plaintiffs.
"Total devastation could possibly have been avoided if something had been done," said Smith after the ruling.
Pierce O'Donnell, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the ruling was the "first time ever the Army Corps has been held liable for damages for a major catastrophe that it caused."
Joe Bruno, another of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, said he expects the government to appeal.
Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the government would review the judge's ruling before deciding how to respond. The lawsuit was the first case against the federal government over Katrina flooding to go to trial. A single judge alone made the decision because a jury cannot try a case against the federal government.
Since Hurricane Katrina, the Corps has admitted that the MRGO is a flood risk and has de-authorized the channel for deep-draft navigation and closed the opening with rocks. The Corps completed construction of the MRGO rock closure structure on July 20, 2009.
Congress has passed two laws providing $75 million for operation and maintenance activities targeting the protection, restoration or increase of wetlands; and the prevention of saltwater intrusion or storm surge.
The Corps is using some of this appropriation for shoreline protection along the MRGO and Lake Borgne. In addition, the Corps is developing a comprehensive MRGO Ecosystem Restoration Plan that is planned for completion in 2011.