by Brenda Ryan
Survivors of Hurricane Katrina are finally getting their day in court. In a trial lasting most of a month that went to the judge Thursday, May 14, in New Orleans, a group of residents is holding the Army Corps of Engineers responsible for the flooding that occurred in the wake of Katrina.
They say the Corps failed to properly build and maintain the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a channel opened in 1963 to provide a shorter route for ships between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of these MRGO failings, problems with the waterway caused environmental damage that allowed water to break through the levees.
While the six plaintiffs, who lost homes and businesses in the flood, seek damages of $300,000 to $400,000 each, “the lawsuit could set a precedent for more than 400,000 others who have filed damage claims against the government,” reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
A report released two years ago found the agency culpable for the flooding that occurred when Katrina hit in 2005. The Times-Picayune reported in March 2007 that an investigative team, including Louisiana State University engineering and storm researchers, concluded that the Army Corps of Engineers had knowingly built levees and floodwalls lower than mandated by Congress, failed to detect or ignored errors and failed to properly maintain the system.
The residents filed suit in 2006 to recover damages caused by the flooding. The United States sought to get the case thrown out or, alternatively, a ruling in its favor. It argued that the plans for MRGO excluded surge barriers and bank protections and that adding them would not have promoted the purpose of MRGO, which was to provide an aid to navigation. The government also contended that “the addition of these features would have invalidated the cost-benefit calculations that were an essential underpinning” of the recommendation for authorization of the channel’s construction.
But in a March 20 ruling, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. denied the government’s request. He said the plaintiffs “demonstrated that there are material questions of fact that the Corps itself had found that the environmental damage caused by the maintenance and operation of the MRGO was significant, such that it had no choice but to file the appropriate mandated reports.”
“Judge Duval heard the case without a jury, because a jury cannot try a case against the federal government,” reports Courthouse News Service.
Attorneys defending the government “maintained that it was not the MRGO but the colossal size of Hurricane Katrina that caused the flooding and destruction,” Courthouse News continued. The defense was roundly criticized for maneuvers such as their submission two days before the trial closed of 350 previously unknown documents.
“A common sentiment expressed by members of the courtroom was that the disorganization and inaccuracies characteristic of the defense’s conduct were analogous to the failure of the levees and the corps’ neglect in remediating obvious flaws to the MRGO over more than four decades,” wrote Sabrina Canfield for Courthouse News.
She reported Judge Duval as saying this trial is “going to be seen as the truth” about the cause of Katrina’s devastation. “Duval is really immersing himself in this case,” observed one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
According to Courthouse News, “The plaintiff attorneys have spent more than $4 million of their own money to fund the trial. If the government is unhappy with Duval’s ruling, it would be possible that the government’s appeal process could go on indefinitely, ‘until there isn’t a single practicing attorney left in the State of Louisiana to try the case,'” said plaintiff attorney Joseph Bruno.
“Despite the government’s assertions in court that the MRGO is not a great concern,” Canfield’s Courthouse News story concluded, “the channel was officially closed last month and is currently being filled in with rocks. Its closure is expected for completion in July 2009.”
The trial offers a chance for a sliver of justice for the survivors of Katrina. Not only did they face racist neglect by local and federal officials and agencies after the hurricane, but vigilantes and cops killed many Black residents of New Orleans. In August a judge dismissed on technicalities charges against six police officers in the killing of two unarmed survivors who were trying to cross the Danzinger Bridge in New Orleans to reach a grocery store. And in December The Nation magazine published an investigation of racist violence, “Katrina’s Hidden Race War,” which found that bands of whites shot and killed a reported 11 Black men.
Only the continued struggle of the people of New Orleans and their supporters will bring justice for the genocidal actions of the government and other racists.
© 2009 Workers World. This story was originally published May 1, 2009, by Workers World, 55 W. 17th St., New York NY 10011, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.workers.org, at http://www.workers.org/2009/world/horn_of_africa_0423/. Bay View staff contributed to this story.