Katrina flooding victims in court to seek damages

Monday, April 20th 2009, 2:33 pm
By: News 9

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A coastal geologist testified Monday that he warned the Army Corps of engineers decades ago about the dangers of the shipping channel that funneled Hurricane Katrina's storm surge into New Orleans.
   Sherwood Gagliano, 73, called construction of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, dug in the 1960s, "one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of the United States."
   He was testifying for the plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit that charges the corps with responsibility for flooding during Katrina, which hit in August 2005.
   Lucille Franz, who lost her home and a sister, has joined four other residents and a business who claim the corps owes them damages because Katrina's storm surge washed out levees along the 75-mile-long channel.
   Much is at stake in the trial, which is being heard by U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval without a jury. If the plaintiffs are victorious, more than 120,000 other individuals, businesses and government entities could have a better shot at claiming billions of dollars in damages.
   Gagliano said Monday he studied initial proposals for the channel, which links the Gulf of Mexico with the port of New Orleans, in the 1950s and prepared reports for the corps on environmental and flood risks.
   In the 1970s, Gagliano said he repeated his warning that the MRGO could cause catastrophic flooding and destroy protective wetlands southeast of New Orleans.
   Plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue more than 120 square miles of wetlands were destroyed by the MRGO, an area six times the size of Manhattan.
   The government was expected to cross-examine Gagliano Monday afternoon.
   The residents argue the corps' poor maintenance of the MRGO led to the wipeout of St. Bernard Parish and the city's Lower Ninth Ward. They are asking for damages between $300,000 and $400,000 for each individual.
   Franz, 75, lost her home in the Lower 9th Ward, and her sister drowned at St. Rita's nursing home in St. Bernard near the MRGO, also known as "Mister Go."
   "They are responsible," she said of the corps. "We wouldn't have had that kind of water if it hadn't been for the MRGO."
   The corps has argued it is immune from liability because the channel is part of New Orleans' flood control system, but the judge has allowed the case to move forward because residents claim the shipping channel was a navigation project.
   The four-week trial will explore in detail the natural history, engineering and politics of the MRGO.
   The outlet, authorized in 1958 by Congress, went through largely pristine wilderness of marsh and swamp forest southeast of New Orleans.
   Scientists say its construction destroyed about 18,000 acres of marsh and 1,500 acres of cypress swamps. The economic benefits never paid off, and few ships used it before Katrina. After the channel was built, larger vessels continued to use the Mississippi River because a bigger lock to the MRGO was never built.
   The corps has acknowledged the area's flood risk and is in the process of closing the MRGO with rocks and building a $1.3 billion floodgate.
   "It's really something the people of St. Bernard and the Lower 9th Ward, and New Orleans East, everybody in that area, have needed for a long time. What happened there should not happen in the United States of America," said plaintiffs' attorney John Andry. "It's the largest preventable catastrophe in American history."
   The Department of Justice is defending the corps, but lawyers declined to comment. In court documents, the government argued Katrina's massive storm surge, not the MRGO, caused the catastrophic flood.
   "The only way in which the catastrophic flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard, and New Orleans East could have been avoided would have been through the construction of a better hurricane protection system," the government argues.
   For decades, the corps has invoked immunity from lawsuits over flooding and maintained it has a good track record of carrying out Congressional mandates.
   In this case, the plaintiffs have a glimmer of hope because U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval has ruled the corps can be held liable for flooding caused by the MRGO. By contrast, Duval threw out a similar suit in January 2008 over flooding caused by broken floodwalls closer to the city park and downtown New Orleans, ruling the corps was immune.