- The Washington Times - Friday, November 20, 2009

NEW ORLEANS (AP) | A landmark court ruling blaming the Army Corps of Engineers’ “monumental negligence” for some of the worst flooding from Hurricane Katrina could lead to a new deluge: billions of dollars in legal action from thousands of storm victims.

The federal judge’s harshly worded decision also served as vindication for residents of St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans who have long argued that Katrina was largely a man-made disaster, caused by the federal government’s failure to maintain the levees protecting the city.

“Finally, somebody has said the truth,” said Catherine Serpas, 67, whose family runs a bicycle and lawnmower store in Chalmette, La. She said the Army Corps’ work on a 76-mile channel called the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet “destroyed the family life we knew. St. Bernard will never be what it used to be.”

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin told CNN the ruling would “open the floodgates” for people in the Lower 9th Ward to seek “proper compensation.”

“If this is allowed to stand, I think you will see a multitude of lawsuits, the City of New Orleans included,” Mr. Nagin said.

A Corps of Engineers spokesman said the agency and the Justice Department were reviewing the ruling and would not comment because issues in the case were still subject to litigation.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval ruled that the corps’ shoddy oversight of the channel southeast of New Orleans caused much of the flooding of St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward, two of the hardest-hit areas after Katrina.

The decision opens the door to billions of dollars in other claims by more than 100,000 individuals, businesses and even government entities that have pending damage claims against the corps. Judge Duval awarded $720,000 in property damages to four individuals and one business.

Storm victims said they were eager for the government to pay up. Ms. Serpas’ sister, Melanie Koons, said she hoped the ruling would “make the corps accountable.”

Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, said that if Judge Duval’s ruling holds up on appeal, he would expect Congress to approve a federal settlement rather than going through individual trials. Total damages could reach into the billions of dollars.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers hoped to head off more litigation by appealing directly to Congress.

“It’s time to stop litigating and start negotiating,” said Pierce O’Donnell, a Los Angeles lawyer who was one of the lead lawyers on the case. “With Judge Duval’s ruling, we now have a weapon.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyers said they would approach congressional leaders after Thanksgiving with a list of demands to settle the case. They said the federal government needs to compensate victims throughout the city, fix the region’s broken infrastructure, restore the wetlands of south Louisiana and overhaul the way the corps operates.

Normally, the federal government is immune from lawsuits that arise from routine operations, including most flood-control projects. But in this case, the judge ruled that the Army Corps could be held liable because the channel in question is not strictly for flood control. It also gave ships and barges a shortcut to and from the Gulf of Mexico until the corps closed it with rocks this year.

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