New Orleans The harshly worded legal ruling this week that held the Army Corps of Engineers responsible for much of the flooding during Hurricane Katrina could have a far-reaching effect on national flood control policies and on the federal government’s refusal to take responsibility for its errors.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. issued the stinging rebuke to the corps late Wednesday for its failure to manage the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and its levees properly. He ruled that those failures were directly responsible for much of the flooding that devastated New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish.
Although only a handful of homeowners won $700,000 in damages, New Orleans officials said the principles established in the ruling would open the floodgates to more than 100,000 claims pending against the Army Corps of Engineers for its defective engineering and poor planning that left 80 percent of the city under water.
But more than deciding which party would win the suit, the power and depth of Duval’s 156-page opinion could have long-term effects on the design of levees that protect communities in almost every state and on how the federal government believes it can tame rivers with piles of dirt, experts said.
“The Corps’ lassitude and failure to fulfill its duties resulted in a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions,” Duval wrote. “The Corps’ negligence resulted in the wasting of millions of dollars in flood protection measures and billions of dollars in congressional outlays to help this region recover from such a catastrophe. Certainly, Congress would never have meant to protect this kind of nonfeasance on the part of the very agency that is charged with the protection of life and property.”
Attorneys who brought the suit moved quickly to expand the ruling in New Orleans.
“Our aim is to leave no Katrina victims behind,” said Pierce O’Donnell, the lead attorney who brought the case. “There are 400,000 administrative claims on file against the corps.”