Channeling flood responsibility

While the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet was officially closed last year, lawsuits and legal rulings around the controversial, manmade waterway continue to rage. Most recently, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers mismanaged the channel and thus was directly responsible for flood damages in St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina.

In a 156-page decision, Duval concluded that the Corps knew the MRGO endangered human life but failed to address the threat before Katrina.

“The Corps’ negligence resulted in the wasting of millions of dollars in flood protection measures and billions of dollars in Congressional outlays to help this region recover from such a catastrophe,” wrote Duval. “Certainly, Congress would never have meant to protect this kind of nonfeasance on the part of the very agency that is tasked with the protection of life and property.”

The Justice Department is reviewing the judge’s ruling and is expected to appeal the decision. Duval’s judgment came in response to a lawsuit filed by local attorney Joseph Bruno on behalf of a handful of residents and one business claiming damages from the MRGO. If the ruling holds up through appeal, the government could pay about $700,000 toward those claims. However, the judgment also opens the way for some 100,000 claims filed by residents, businesses and local governments in the St. Bernard and Lower Ninth Ward areas, potentially worth billion of dollars. Duval ruled that one claimant from eastern New Orleans, local TV newsanchor Norman Robinson, wasn’t entitled to damages. That means it’s unlikely this judgment will help the many thousands of other individuals from eastern New Orleans collect on claims filed against the Corps.

The Corps built the MRGO in the 1960s by dredging through the coastal marshes, cypress swamps and shallow bays near New Orleans. It was intended to create a shorter route to the Gulf by bypassing the Mississippi River. Local advocates have long pointed out its peril for New Orleans-area communities as a potential funnel for storm surge. In 2008, Congress officially de-authorized the channel, and last fall the Corps completed a massive surge barrier closing the channel.

But over the years, the channel’s levees have deteriorated and it has accelerated wetlands loss by carrying saltwater into the delicate marsh that historically buffers local communities from storm surge. Duval pinned the blame on Corps mismanagement.

“The loss of wetlands and widening of the channel brought about by the operation and maintenance of the MRGO clearly were a substantial cause of plaintiffs’ injury,” wrote Duval.

– I.M.

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