Nearly a month of testimony wrapped up Thursday in a New Orleans trial concerning the extensive flooding that took place after Hurricane Katrina. At question is whether the U.S. government can be held accountable for it.
The trial has drawn attention because the government is usually immune from such lawsuits. In this case, residents claim the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a shipping channel nicknamed "Mr. Go," produced a funnel that allowed floodwaters to inundate the area.
Mr. Go was created as a shortcut from the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans back in the 1960s. It has long been controversial.
The plaintiffs claim the Mr. Go channel eroded wetlands and acted as a "hurricane highway," allowing the storm surge to overwhelm the parts of the city.
Lucille Franz is one of six plaintiffs. She is 75 years old, and her home in the Lower Ninth Ward was destroyed.
"We had 18 to 22 feet of water, and it went about 3 or 4 feet upstairs, and something hit the side of the building," she says. "It looks like a tornado come through."
Franz had lived in her home for more than 50 years, and this was the first time water had gushed into her neighborhood. She says no one had flood insurance because they didn't think they needed it.
"Well, if we wouldn't have had Mr. Go, we wouldn't have had this happen to us," she says."
Franz told the court she is unable to rebuild — that she and her husband, who is 80, are still looking for a home.
The lawsuit claims the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers improperly designed the channel and failed to maintain it.
"Over time, it widened, and from its original 650 feet to over 3,000 feet in places, and that widening enhanced this ability to convey water — storm water — into greater New Orleans and also allowed the waves to develop on it during Katrina," says Ivor van Heerden, a consultant for the plaintiffs. Van Heerden worked for 18 years in the civil and environmental engineering department at Louisiana State University.
But civil engineer Cecil Soileau, who worked for more than 30 years with the corps, says the channel is not to blame.
"These people — I sympathize with them," Soileau says. "They are looking for reasons, but this is not the reason."
Soileau says it was Katrina's unprecedented storm surge that caused the damage.
"The gulf rose, you know, 22 feet in about six or seven hours and flooded the whole area," Soileau says. "It just overwhelmed all man-made objects. To attempt to place blame on this little tiny channel — the logic is just not there."
Neither the Corps of Engineers nor the Justice Department would comment.
This case is unique because the government is generally immune from lawsuits and damages related to floods. But Mr. Go is a shipping channel, so the judge allowed the case to go to trial because the plaintiffs claim their flooding was due to a navigation project
"It's an important case legally, from the standpoint of when and under what circumstances the government will be held accountable for negligence," says Mark Davis, who serves as head of the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy.
Davis says people are watching this case for some sense of what might happen in the future in New Orleans and in other cities.
"I think it's also going to be fundamental to shaping the relationship between government and citizens and what we have a right to expect of one another," he says.
Since Katrina, the corps has shut down the Mr. Go channel. If the case against the government is successful, hundreds of thousands of other plaintiffs are waiting to be part of a potential class action lawsuit. There was no jury in the case. The judge is expected to make his ruling this summer.