New Corps of Engineers trial is a significant Katrina case
The federal trial over the post-Katrina flooding of the Lower 9th Ward and parts of St. Bernard Parish, set to begin Wednesday, is a significant case that could have major implications for possibly tens of thousands of homeowners.
The repaired breach in the Industrial Canal levee wall, and the barge that came through it, were photographed Sept. 12, 2005.
The suit, filed by residents whose homes flooded after the storm, alleges that pre-storm work on the nearby Industrial Canal lock compromised the canal's eastern floodwall. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that the corps contractor on the lock, Washington International Group Inc., removed several structures inside the canal and inadequately plugged the holes left behind. That, they say, allowed storm surge to seep beneath the floodwall, leading to its failure and the disastrous flooding that killed dozens of residents and flooded thousands of homes in that area.
The corps and the contractor argue that the 14-foot wall collapsed not because of any lock-related work, but because floodwaters overtopped the structure. Attorneys for the defendants said the waterfall of water over the wall carved a 7-foot deep ditch in the earthen levee on which the wall was built. They say that and the weight of the canal's water caused two sections of wall to fail.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. will decide the case. If he agrees with the plaintiffs, the corps and the contractor would likely be held liable for damages, because the lock project is not a flood-control structure. Judge Duval has previously ruled that the corps can't be held liable for damages when flood-control projects fail.
Judge Duval already presided over a previous Katrina-related dispute between residents and the Corps of Engineers. In that case, the judge ruled in 2009 that the corps was negligent in its management of the now-closed Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, leading to the catastrophic flooding of most of St. Bernard Parish and parts of the Lower 9th Ward. That ruling made it clear that the corps knew the navigation canal posed a threat to life and property, something the agency admitted to as early as 1988. But the corps failed to act in time to prevent the disaster.
That ruling, which was a major step in holding the corps accountable, could cost the agency as much as $20 billion. In March, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge Duval's 2009 decision. The Justice Department has asked the 5th Circuit to have the appeal heard "en banc" by all 17 active appeal court's judges, but the 5th Circuit has not indicated whether it will re-hear the case.
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