Friday, November 20, 2009

American Tsunami VI

“Monumental negligence.”

With those two words, U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr., late Wednesday opened the door, if not the floodgates, to an expected torrent of lawsuits against agencies of the federal government, lawsuits representing — quite probably, almost certainly — the first real evidence of justice for human beings needlessly displaced by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

The four individuals and one business in the hugely battered Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish were awarded $720,000 by Duval, the apparent resolution of a lawsuit brought against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Judge Duval ruled that the engineers failed to properly maintain the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), the vital arterial that connected New Orleans and Louisiana to the Gulf of Mexico.

Duval’s ruling found that the Corps of Engineers, through its “negligent operation and maintenance” was implicit in creating a literal conduit for water, effectively channeling the torrents of water unleashed by Katrina into eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, creating the near-biblical event we’re still recovering from today.

“Once the corps exercised its discretion to create a navigational channel, it was obligated to make sure that channel did not destroy the environment surrounding it thereby creating a hazard to life and property,” Duval said in his ruling. “When the corps designed the MRGO, it recognized that foreshore protection was going to be needed, yet the corps did nothing to monitor the problem in a meaningful way.”

Duval’s ruling is believed to make about 100,000 neighbors of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit eligible for their own compensation.

The precise breakdown — what that award amounts to for each resident individually — is anyone’s guess. But just for grins, let’s do a straight mathematical back-of-the-envelope calculation:

If you divide $720,000 equally among the five plaintiffs, it works out to $140,000 for each of them. Extrapolating that amount across the estimated 100,000 people in the class would yield a theoretical total award of … $14.4 billion.

And that would apparently be just for starters. Overall, 490,000 claims have been filed with the Corps seeking hurricane-related damages, The Washington Post reported.

Louisiana lawmakers are ready for an endgame to this long-playing national drama. "I will be working directly with President Obama to ensure that his administration understands the implications of this decision and the immediate need for the government to reach a final resolution," Sen. Mary Landrieu told The Post.

Rep. Charles Melancon (D-La.) told The Post he hoped for a “quick resolution” to end the legal battling.

Any time you’re dealing with lawyers and the federal government, it’s a certainty: Justice grinds exceedingly slow. But it’s good news just the same, a break for people who sorely need one, and evidence of the pursuit of what Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called for in August 1963, in another context of inequality, its aquatic imagery intact, painful though it may be: “ … we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."

Image credits: Hurricane Katrina: NASA. New Orleans post-Katrina graphic: BBC News. New Orleans from the air: Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi, USCG.

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