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A victory for Katrina flood survivors?

By Jesse Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Nov 25, 2009 - 9:51:41 PM

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Army Corp of Engineers partly responsible for Katrina disaster

NEW ORLEANS—Flood Damage After Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 29, 2005. Photo: MGN Online/Courtesy of the Coast Guard
( - In what is being hailed as a ground breaking decision, a federal judge recently ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers were directly responsible for flood damage in St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward following Hurricane Katrina, due to poor management of maintenance at the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet(MR-GO).

“The failure of the Corps to recognize the destruction that the MR-GO had caused and the potential hazard that it created is clearly negligent on the part of the Corps,” said U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. in his ruling on Nov. 18.

The judge's ruling in a civil lawsuit could result in the government handing out $700,000 in damages to the plaintiffs, which includes three residents and a business in those areas. The ruling includes some 100,000 homes and business in the defined areas.

“Furthermore, the Corps not only knew, but admitted by 1988, that the MR-GO threatened human life. Yet it did not act in time to prevent the catastrophic disaster that ensued with the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina,” said Judge Duval in his ruling.

“This is huge. This was a surprise but a pleasant one. I hope the decision will open up the floodgates for others to file lawsuits against the federal government,” said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

“This ruling highlights the fact that Hurricane Katrina's damage was exacerbated by the failure of the Corps of Engineers to properly operate and maintain water resources projects in Louisiana,” said Gov. Bobby Jindal.

“I hope this decision will serve as a catalyst for the corps, Congress and the administration to aggressively move forward on hurricane protection and coastal restoration efforts in Louisiana,” Gov. Jindal said.

The legal team representing the plaintiffs is pressing the Obama administration to move swiftly to compensate their clients and the other impacted residents.

“It's time that we stopped litigating and we started negotiating,” said Los Angeles-based attorney Pierce O'Donnell, who co-represented the plaintiffs.

“The day that the first explosion was delivered to the cypress forest to begin digging and developing the MR-GO was the first day of public outcry that this was going to be the ruination of St. Bernard Parish,” said Craig Taffaro, St. Bernard Parish president.

Residents of New Orleans, La. fled to the Superdome to seek refuge from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 30, 2005. Photos: MGN Online/Courtesy of WBRZ News
“In terms of the judicial process, this decision is revolutionary. In terms of social justice, it's a start but it's not enough. It's not over yet,” New Orleans activist Mtangulizi Sanyika, told The Final Call.

“It's a bittersweet victory in the sense that: yes, we are at the table, yes, we are grateful for the judge's ruling, for the legal team to deliver us to this point. But what a shame that we had to go through such devastation and destruction to get here,” said Mr. Taffaro, who hopes his parish will also receive compensation for damages reportedly exceeding $1 billion.

“The Justice Department could continue the scorched earth policies of the prior administration and stonewall the people of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish for years to come,” said Mr. O'Donnell. “Or the new president and his Justice Department can honor (Mr. Obama's) campaign promise and his recent promise in New Orleans to do the right thing by the people of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish.”

Mr. O'Donnell led the legal team along with attorney Joseph Bruno of New Orleans. Following the ruling, both said any settlements should also include compensation for residents and businesses of other flooded areas not included in the ruling.

“The department is currently reviewing Judge Duval's decision,” said Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller. “We have made no decision as to what the government's next step will be.”

The Justice Department is expected to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court if necessary. If that appeal hampers the brokering an out of court settlement, the attorneys are prepared to ask Judge Duval to certify the case as a class action suit. This would include issuing a direct judgment against the corps to ensure they are liable for claims filed against them.

Many who fled to the Superdome fell sick from heat exhaustion and dehydration.
“In the coming days, I will be working directly with President Obama to ensure that his administration understands the implications of this decision and the immediate need for the government to reach a final resolution for the people of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu.

Community leaders see this as a much needed victory against the federal government that could set the stage for compensating thousands of victims for billions in claims filed the last several years. They are also worried about the damaged areas being exempted from the judgment, because Judge Duval said MR-GO did not affect the levee systemprotecting areas such as eastern New Orleans.

“I think the judgment is a small step in the right direction, however, what about those who live outside of the Lower 9th Ward, which was impacted by the breeches of levees inside the city that were supposed to protect it? The lawsuit doesn't benefit them,” Willie Muhammad of the Nation of Islam told The Final Call.

“Although I am happy for my fellow Katrina survivors who will benefit from this ruling, I need compensation too. I was left out along with thousands,” said Kimberly Robinson, a native of east New Orleans now residing in Houston.

Ms. Robinson told The Final Call she lost her home four years ago and “has yet to recover. I have been struggling psychologically and financially. So I hope down the line all of us will be compensated. The government owes us all something.”

Mr. Sanyika, who resided on the east side of New Orleans, lost everything in 2005. He would like to see this judgment result in a class action suit that includes everyone impacted by floodwaters.

“Many are not pleased that the judge did not see fit to include the east side,” said Mr. Sanyika, who heads the African-American Leadership Project. “We will be meeting in the next few weeks with officials to see how we can get others included.”

In August of 2005, over 80 percent of New Orleans was submerged underwater, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands dispersed in over 40 states throughout the nation. Former President George W. Bush and his administration drew harsh criticism from across the world as scenes of floating bodies, stranded Black families atop roofs and dying elderly streamed across the television and internet.

“I would have liked to have seen the judge rule against the 1928 federal law that grants the corps immunity against lawsuits for inferior work. Basically they have a law that protects them from their own inferior work,” said Mr. Muhammad.

“The buzz in the community is that we would have loved for it to include the east side residents because they suffered too,” activist Malcolm Suber told The Final Call.

“We have been burned so many times with promises, that even in the wake of this judgment, people have a wait and see attitude. But compensation would be great,” said Mr. Suber, who is with a coalition helping residents to get jobs.

“For the people of Greater New Orleans who lost their loved ones and their homes during this horrific storm, this news is too little too late,” commented Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). “But perhaps this decision can serve as a warning for the future and as a means to help bring some form of relief to the victims of this storm.”

“This decision also confirms my belief that we need sweeping change to flood protection, coastal restoration, and water management for our cities, large and small, in Louisiana,” said Sen. Landrieu “The Corps of Engineers can no longer be relied upon as the lone agency charged with protecting our coastal communities.”