Victims of Katrina File Rash of Lawsuits
Sunday, May 13, 2007
NEW ORLEANS -- Ever since the floodwaters receded, the idea that the U.S. government was to blame for the Katrina catastrophe has possessed and angered its victims.
A legion of lawn signs, posted in front of many wrecked homes, wagged a finger at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for the flood works: "Hold the Corps accountable!"
Turns out it was more than mere talk. After a massive deadline filing rush recently that is still being sorted through, the United States is facing legal claims from more than 250,000 people here demanding compensation because, they allege, the Corps negligently designed the waterworks that permeate the city.
No one knows whether the plaintiffs will get a dime, and legal experts note the difficulties of successfully suing the federal government. But officials said the damage claimed against the Corps exceeds $278 billion, an amount that dwarfs even the estimated $125 billion that the federal government has put up for Gulf Coast hurricane recovery.
Win or lose, the volume of claims is a measure of the prevalent sense in this city that the United States created the disaster and that, worse, it has failed to make up for it in disaster aid.
"This was the largest catastrophe in the history of the United States, and people want justice," said Joseph M. Bruno, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys handling the case in federal court. "So when we went public with this, the public went nuts."
During the deadline rush in March, the federal agency was so overwhelmed by the claims that a traffic jam formed in front of its offices here. Even now, nearly two months after the deadline, agency workers are still compiling the paperwork. One of the first plaintiffs in the suits was well-known local television news anchorman Norman Robinson.
The damages claimed have yet to be tallied, but the state asked for $200 billion and the city $77 billion. Bruno brushed aside criticism from those who suggest people are signing on to the lawsuit in the same way they buy a lottery ticket -- as a meager investment that could reap big winnings.
"This isn't just people jumping on the bus," he said.
The litigation, still in its earliest stages, is complex.
There is no dispute that the flood works designed by the Army Corps of Engineers failed in Katrina, or that the Corps made mistakes.
An engineering review panel convened by the Corps noted that although Katrina was worse than the type of storm the levee system was designed for, the performance of the flood works "was less than the design intent." The devastation "was aided by the presence of incomplete protection, lower than authorized structures [levees], and levee sections with erodible materials," it said.