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article imageLegal Case May Impact New Orleans Victims, Fed Budget, Recession Special

By Carol Forsloff     Apr 20, 2009 in Environment
Today an important case being heard in a Federal court in New Orleans may turn the tide on Hurricane Katrina. A lawsuit against the United States Army Corps of Engineers might allow settlement of thousands of negligence claims.
The case involves five defendants who filed their case in April 2006. Although their damages are relatively small by comparison, if they win their case a tidal wave of other settlements with other people negatively impacted by Hurricane Katrina could bring victory for many people who have claims for property damage, personal injury and wrongful death. Although the case against the government was filed three years ago, the trial begins today.
The flood that destroyed many areas of New Orleans has been said to have been caused by breaches in the New Orleans levees, according to reports of independent engineering contractors made in the aftermath of the storm. A hurricane specialist, Professor Ivor van Heerden, who was a whistle-blower in this case has recently been terminated by Louisiana State University in a move seen by many as an effort to silence experts from providing information opposing the government. Demonstrations in support of Van Heerden took place last Thursday in New Orleans.
Oliver Houck was quoted by the Director of Tulane University’s Environmental Law Program as saying, "This is sort of the Exxon Valdez litigation of the government-liability field." The case has serious consequences when it comes to recovery of claims against the government. Private insurance claims could also be impacted, given the clauses of fault normally in insurance contracts. In terms of government liability, the Justice Department established an estimate of $100 billion that might have to be paid out to folks in New Orleans in addition to the $34.5 billion already promised for rebuilding efforts.
At a time of recession, when the government has many obligations, $100 billion represents nearly half of the initial automobile industry bailout of $700 billion. Since most Americans were disgruntled about that, the economic, political, emotional and social impacts could become part of the present scenario. As news media have pulled out of New Orleans from covering Katrina news, the country outside of New Orleans may find itself without the intimate information that could engender understanding of the present civil negligence case and victims concerns. That’s true given the fact that many people believe that the city and its victims should just move on. Furthermore black and white people see the problems from different perspectives with whites more apt to be among those declaring people should just get on with their lives
The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal is central to the plaintiff’s case in this lawsuit against the Corps. The suit claims that because of the faulty construction and maintenance of the channel caused the flooding of neighborhoods hardest hit by Katrina, including New Orleans East, St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward.
Following Hurricane Katrina, MR-GO was decommissioned. A massive 430,000 ton barrier of rocks was put in place to plug up ship traffic, keeping saltwater from intruding on the wetlands, which had been eroded. This action was taken in order to restore the canal to its native state and help restore the natural barrier to storm effects. It is something both environmentalists and folks like David Vitter, Senator from Louisiana, have declared important. Congress has asked the Corps to continue the process of helping to restore the wetlands.
The Times Picayune quotes Carlton Dufrechou, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, an activist environmental group as saying, "MR-GO caused the demise of the coast east of New Orleans," said, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, a local environmental group. "Did that add to the cause of the disaster? Heck yeah." Both environmental activists and groups like Levees.org have been interested in this case. Sandy Rosenthal, Chairman of Levees.org says the present case about the MR-GO is likely to arouse strong emotions and that she and her organization will be watching the case move forward and awaiting its outcome. Hers is an educational group, and she said "we are hoping to learn new information as it is released."
The controversy between different groups involving the disaster lies between those who believe local officials were partly to blame because of their lack of oversight on the flood-control system and those who believe it was primarily the Army Corps of Engineers at fault. Some believe it was a constellation of factors.
Nevertheless, the outcome of this case against the government may prove more than just a blip on the national radar considering the financial aspects of the case. According to news reports out of New Orleans, the case is likely to continue for some time beyond the four-week trial, to appeal if the government loses and is declared to make a hefty settlement. This is likely even more of an issue given the cost of the present recession and the public’s strong emotions against more bailouts.
AP coverage at the time this lawsuit was initially filed can be found here.
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