Judge Finds Corps Liable For Katrina Flooding

In awarding $720,000 in damages, a federal judge in New Orleans rejected the government's argument that the Army Corps of Engineers was immune from suit. He found that "monumental negligence" in the operation and maintenance of a shipping channel caused homes to be swamped.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In New Orleans tonight, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. government owes money to residents whose homes were flooded by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In a strongly-worded opinion, the judge blamed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for negligence in its maintenance and operation of a shipping channel.

NPR's Kathy Lohr joins us now from New Orleans. And Kathy, I know the people in New Orleans don't regard the damage inflicted by Katrina as an act of God, so much as an act of government negligence primarily on the part of the Corps of Engineers. What's their argument?

KATHY LOHR: Really, they have blamed for years the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, also known as Mr. GO - this waterway which was completed in the 1960s as a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico - from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. And they say that it allowed more water and ways to come into the area to overtop those levees and ultimately to destroy their property.

So, it's not that the folks in New Orleans thought there would be no flooding, but residents claim that the flooding and the damage was much worse because this outlet existed.

SIEGEL: Now, this was a very long and complex trial. And the judge seemed to zero in on how this shipping channel, Mr. GO, Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, got bigger over time. What did happen to it?

LOHR: The fact is the waterway did expand more than three times its original size over some 40 years. And Judge Stanwood Duval said the Corps failed to address those issues and that it was negligent. In fact, in the opinion, the judge said, the grant which game the agency the authority to build the channel did not and could not have given the Corps the ability to ignore what he called its unbridled growth.

He also said that it was as if the Corps built a factory that it knew after a period of time would produce deadly emissions. But instead of correcting the ill-effects, the Corps stood by noticing the horrible nature of the air and did nothing.

SIEGEL: Now, the judge awarded four homeowners and a business more than $700,000 in damages. Is that the kind of compensation that people expected?

LOHR: People suing did expect, I believe, to receive additional compensation. But the real impact of this ruling is that it opens the doors for tens of thousands of people to sue. And that's probably what will happen.

SIEGEL: Any reaction so far from the Army Corps of Engineers?

LOHR: Well, a spokesman for the Corps in Washington did say that they just got the decision late this evening and that they're reviewing it. So we'll get more on that tomorrow.

SIEGEL: Once again, a ruling in federal court on behalf of plaintiffs against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, claiming that because of the way the Corps built and expanded the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, Mr. GO, as it's known down there, the Corps is responsible for some damages caused by Hurricane Katrina.

NPR's Kathy Lohr in New Orleans, thank you.

LOHR: My pleasure.

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