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STEVE INSKEEP, host

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Some residents of New Orleans insist it wasn't really a natural disaster that flooded the city. They say it was government neglect. And last night a federal judge supported that argument.

INSKEEP: The judge handed down a ruling related to the flooding that swept the city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He said the U.S. Army Core of Engineers was responsible for some of that flooding. He ordered the government to pay more than $700,000 to five people who sued. That's a relatively small amount to a relatively few people, but it may be just the beginning.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: The lawsuit claimed the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, known as MRGO, eroded wetlands, that waves on the 76 mile canal destroyed levees and caused extensive flooding during Hurricane Katrina. Federal Judge Stanwood Duval issued a harsh criticism of the corps, saying the failure to fulfill its duties resulted in a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions.

Mr. JOSEPH BRUNO (Attorney): This ruling is incredibly important to the city of New Orleans. Finally our people are vindicated.

LOHR: Joseph Bruno is one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs. He called the decision a historic ruling.

Mr. BRUNO: After the flooding we had to hear about how - victim fault, they should have lived somewhere else, they should have bought flood insurance. And now we have a judge who has confirmed that the cause of the flooding was the gross incompetence and neglect of the Corps of Engineers.

LOHR: The judge said the corps was clearly negligent for failure to maintain and operate the canal properly and ordered in favor of the plaintiffs from the St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward, but he found the corps was immune from liability for the flooding in New Orleans East. Still, plaintiffs' attorney Pierce O'Donnell called the ruling monumental.

Mr. PIERCE O'DONNELL (Attorney): Judge Duval's decision is the first step in a long overdue process of holding the Army Corps accountable for the projects it builds.

LOHR: A spokesman for the Corps of Engineers says the Justice Department is reviewing the judge's decision, that the issues involved are subject to appeal. The shipping channel opened in the 1960s to provide a shorter route from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. Over the years, the waterway widened from 650 feet to more than 2,000 feet in many places. During Katrina, a wall of water was funneled into the city and overwhelmed the levee system.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

LOHR: East of New Orleans at Bayou Bienvenue, the channel at the heart of the case spans in front of us and more than a dozen cranes reach into the bright blue sky. You can hear the thumping of concrete pilings being driven into the swampy marsh. It's the creation of a permanent barrier to protect the area from future storm surges.

Dr. PAUL KEMP (Louisiana State University): What we hear now is after the city has been destroyed, we are finally seeing the countermeasures put in place that were needed all along.

LOHR: Dr. Paul Kemp was a professor at Louisiana State University. He is a wetlands expert and a consultant for the plaintiffs. Earlier this year the corps finally agreed to close the shipping channel, but Kemp says it took four decades to address the problems.

Dr. KEMP: There were 40 years of denials, basically. And we're now - the nation has now arrived to undo the damage that was caused.

LOHR: Plaintiffs' attorneys says the ruling opens the door for some 100,000 people and thousands of businesses to sue the government. That could mean billions of dollars in damages. They say they'll go to Washington to talk to Congress about funding wetlands restoration and they want the Obama administration to set up a fund for all Katrina flood victims. That won't happen anytime soon, as the case will have to make its way through the federal appeals courts first.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, New Orleans.

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