Special interests and some Louisiana lawmakers are lobbying the federal government to settle with the thousands of residents who fell victim after Hurricane Katrina to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' poor design and management of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO). It's about time.
Residents of St. Bernard and parts of Orleans parishes sustained extensive flood damage from MRGO following Katrina's landfall in 2005. U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval ruled last November that the Corps was liable for a portion of those damages, and residents are demanding just compensation. Duval's ruling specifically states that the Corps' failure to effectively maintain MRGO was directly responsible for the flooding.
In a letter mailed last week to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose department represents the Corps as legal counsel, U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, wrote that a resolution needs to be reached so victims can put an end to the litigation and move on with their lives. "The people of St. Bernard and New Orleans have worked tirelessly for more than four years to recover what they lost in Katrina," Melancon wrote. "Through pure grit and determination, they have rebuilt their homes and communities, and their strength of spirit is an inspiration to us all."
Melancon noted that a framework has been established on the federal level to proceed. "In light of the president's steadfast dedication to recovery and Judge Duval's findings, I request that your office begin negotiations with these plaintiffs to resolve their claims and allow them to continue rebuilding their lives," Melancon wrote.
In particular, Melancon said that President Barack Obama, during his visit to New Orleans in October, noted that "Katrina was not caused just by a disaster of nature, but also a breakdown of government."
The trial overseen by Duval lasted 20 days and produced thousands of pages of documents that showed MRGO was responsible for destroying 47,000 square miles of wetlands in the area by 1973. Another 73 square miles of wetlands were lost between 1973 and the date Katrina tore through south Louisiana in 2005, according to Duval's findings.
Duval's 156-page opinion also concluded that the Corps did little to nothing to rehab MRGO during that timeframe, including asking Congress for money. "Additionally, at some point during the time continuum from the MRGO's construction, the Corps certainly could have warned Congress about the potential catastrophic loss of life and property," Duval wrote. "It did not, and funding only comes with knowledge."
In the short run, Duval's ruling could force the federal government to pay roughly $700,000 in damages to a small group of people and businesses. In the long run, it could set a precedent for other residents — as many as 100,000 — to get compensated for property damages attributable to MRGO.
The loss of lives is a different matter altogether. Some legal experts predict the Corps' liability could potentially include deaths attributable to flooding from MRGO. Some wrongful death lawsuits have been filed, but they were not included in the case recently decided by Duval.
Melancon, who promises to press the issue in coming months, is vacating his House seat this year to run against U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie. For his part, Vitter has long been an outspoken advocate for the full closure of the MRGO.
He also offered the following statement to The Times-Picayune last week: "I applauded the judge's ruling when it first came out last November and had been very supportive of the Corps settling the litigation and not drawing it out further. This ruling confirmed what I've been saying for some time — that the Corps chose to disregard common-sense engineering practices and safety standards, and that this gross irresponsibility resulted in the loss of lives and property."
MRGO isn't the divisive issue it used to be. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find an elected official in Louisiana who doesn't want the residents of St. Bernard and the Lower 9th Ward to get the money they deserve. What's uncertain is whether the federal government and President Obama are ready to do the right thing.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.