It's being called a "landmark decision." A federal judge ruled November 18 in favor of New Orleans residents and one business, the plaintiffs, and against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a Hurricane Katrina flooding lawsuit.
U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood R. Duval, Jr, decided that the Corps failed to maintain the levees that breached during Katrina, flooding St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. The case involved six plaintiffs, two of which are in the same household, and the court awarded $720,000 in compensation to the remaining four.
From the New Orleans Times Picayune/NOLA.com:
In a groundbreaking decision, a federal judge ruled late Wednesday that the Army Corps of Engineers' mismanagement of maintenance at the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet was directly responsible for flood damage in St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina. (Source)
Its story includes this language from Judge Duval:
The failure of the Corps to recognize the destruction that the MRGO had caused and the potential hazard that it created is clearly negligent on the part of the Corps." ... "Furthermore, the Corps not only knew, but admitted by 1988, that the MRGO threatened human life ... and yet it did not act in time to prevent the catastrophic disaster that ensued with the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina."
And from CNN's story on the ruling:
"For over 40 years, the Corps was aware that the Reach II levee protecting Chalmette and the Lower Ninth Ward was going to be compromised by the continued deterioration of the MRGO ... The Corps had an opportunity to take a myriad of actions to alleviate this deterioration or rehabilitate this deterioration and failed to do so. Clearly, the expression 'talk is cheap' applies here." (Duval quoted by CNN)
The ruling, with its 156-page opinion, is so unprecedented that the court's website has a message saying that the court has been overwhelmed with phone calls. Consequently, "the court has ordered that any questions concerning the Katrina Canal Breach Consolidated Litigation should first be addressed by Liaison Counsel."
Norm Robinson, the main anchor of a local New Orleans television station, WDSU, was one of the plaintiff's in the case. However, Judge Duval ruled against the Robinson household's claim. That ruling may make it difficult for residents of New Orleans East, the location of the anchor's home, to sue the federal government, said a WDSU reporter. Leading into the story Wednesday night for WDSU, Robinson said the ruling leaves New Orleans East residents in limbo.
However, speaking of how this news vindicates New Orleans residents who have been saying since Hurricane Katrina flooded the city in 2005 that the flooding was not an act of God but man-made, Mayor Ray Nagin told CNN, Duval's ruling will "open the floodgates" for people in the Lower 9th Ward to seek "proper compensation."
The Times Picayune clarifies what "floodgates" may mean:
Duval's 156-page decision could result in the federal government paying $700,000 in damages to three people and a business in those areas, but also sets the stage for judgments worth billions of dollars against the government for damages suffered by as many as 100,000 other residents, businesses and local governments in those areas who filed claims with the corps after Katrina.
If the Lower Ninth Wards sounds familiar to you, that's probably because it is one area of the City of New Orleans that has gotten massive mainstream media coverage since the flooding, a historic but also largely poor and African-American section. It's the section on which actor Brad Pitt has focused his renewal efforts, and it's also the section featured in the HBO documentary Trouble the Water and mentioned frequently in Spike Lee's film When the Levees Broke.
In addition to the Lower 9th Ward, Duval's ruling impacts residents of Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish.
On August 29, 2005, St. Bernard was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The storm damaged virtually every structure in the parish. The eye of Katrina passed over the eastern portion of the parish, pushing a 25-foot (7.6 m) storm surge into the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet ("MRGO"). This surge destroyed the parish levees. Almost the entire parish was flooded, with most areas left with between 5 and 12 feet (3.7 m) of standing water. The water rose suddenly and violently, during a period which witnesses reported as no more than fifteen minutes. In many areas, houses were smashed or washed off their foundations by a storm surge higher than the roofs. (Wikipedia)
Unfortunately for St. Bernard Parish, you may be familiar with its being in the news over the years for a housing bias case.
Under "insouciance, myopia and shortsightedness," a phrase from the court document, Your Right Hand Thief suggests you read excerpts from the ruling. The blogger declares, "The word "failure" is repeated again and again in the ruling describing ACoE's relation to it's responsibilities."
Edtilla at the New Orleans Ladder, a blog that consistently advocates for action in the city, has multiple posts on the ruling, of which his Wednesday post is one with video from the Rachel Maddow show. Maddow makes clear in her commentary as the news breaks that district court is on the lower rung of the federal courts system.
In his sidebar he links to this Levees.org video, which asserts long before the ruling that levee failure was an "engineering disaster," not natural. The video further explains why New Orleans is not in the wrong place, but one of the most important ports for the United States America.
Levee.org also has a statement on Duval's ruling. It's founder said, "To me, the reward is helping the American people understand that the 2005 levee failures in metro New Orleans were indicative of a national problem, and not a symptom of local corruption."
The blogger at LipRap's Lament wrote:
Yes, it's damn nice to be vindicated - not just for all of us here and for the New Orleans and Plaquemines Parish diaspora, but for the many other places all over this country that are threatened due to the same sort of neglect the Corps is still exhibiting all over this country (in cities such as Sacramento, for instance, as if California didn't have enough problems already) with regards to flood protection. ... [but considering other issues such as loss of wetlands] ... We've got a long ways to go, people. We must keep on keepin' on, living like we do, spreading this news and putting all our weight behind it like I know we in this city love to do when we wanna. (LipRap)
Yes, expect the U.S. Justice Department to appeal this decision all the way to the Supreme Court.
More from living