Katrina floodwall case heads to New Orleans trial

Sep 11, 2012, 4:25 PM

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) – The Army Corps of Engineers is back on trial, seven years after Hurricane Katrina’s epic storm surge shredded the flood protection system it had built for New Orleans.

Starting Wednesday, a federal judge will hear testimony on claims that excavation work by the corps and one of its contractors caused the failure of floodwalls meant to protect the city’s Lower 9th Ward and neighboring St. Bernard Parish.

The corps rejects the plaintiffs’ negligence claims, countering that water from Katrina’s rain and surge overtopped and overwhelmed floodwalls along the east side of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, also known locally as the Industrial Canal.

The trial will be the second to pit New Orleans residents against the corps over damage from flooding in Katrina’s aftermath. The storm struck Aug. 29, 2005, leaving about 80 percent of the city under water after levees and floodwalls failed.

The case will be heard without a jury and decided by U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr., who ruled in 2009 on separate but related claims that the corps’ shoddy work on a shipping channel left the same areas vulnerable to flooding.

If Duval rules for the plaintiffs again, the case could evolve into a class-action involving many more claims against the corps.

Joseph Bruno, a lead plaintiffs’ attorney for both cases, said more than $1 billion could be at stake if Duval rules against the corps and its contractor, Washington Group International Inc., after the latest trial.

“Everybody knows they screwed up,” Bruno said. “The only question is how and whether they have to pay.”

In March, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Duval’s landmark ruling that the federal government isn’t immune from lawsuits blaming Katrina’s flood damage on the corps’ operation and maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet navigation channel.

The second trial centers on a lock replacement project that began in 1999, when the corps hired WGI to perform excavation and backfilling work near the canal floodwalls.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys argue the corps and WGI should have known the work could jeopardize the floodwalls’ stability but failed to properly evaluate and protect against their failure.

“It is a basic engineering principle and practice that if you dig holes near a floodwall as substantial as the ones at issue here (and improperly backfill and compact those holes), you need to determine whether your work would harm the floodwall. Neither the Corps nor WGI followed this basic engineering precept,” plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in their trial brief.

University of California at Berkeley engineering professor Robert Bea, an expert witness for the plaintiffs, concluded that subterranean water pressures from Katrina’s storm surge passed through the holes and a layer of clay with enough force to breach the floodwalls in two places.

Justice Department lawyers representing the corps say Bea is the only proponent of this theory and accused him of performing a “deeply flawed and unscientific analysis.”

“At trial it will become apparent that no competent evidence supports the plaintiffs’ contention that hydraulic underseepage and uplift pressures caused the breaches,” the government lawyers wrote in a court filing.

Instead, the government offers an explanation that is “simpler, more consistent with the facts:” Katrina’s overwhelming surge overtopped the floodwalls and caused the breaches. The government denies WGI’s work was at fault.

WGI says the corps was solely responsible for ensuring that the excavation and backfilling work wouldn’t jeopardize stability of the floodwalls.

“While the evidence at trial will prove that WGI’s conduct did not cause the breaches, the relevant inquiry for the purposes of determining whether WGI met the standard of care is not whether the (corps’) instructions were correct, but whether WGI acted reasonably in following them,” the company’s lawyers wrote in their trial brief.

WGI also assailed Bea’s conclusions, calling them “divorced from reality and completely unsupportable.”

The trial is expected to last about a month.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

United States News

(Brian Munoz/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, File)...
Associated Press

FDA declines to regulate CBD; calls on Congress for fix

The Food and Drug Administration said Thursday there are too many unknowns about CBD products to regulate them as foods or supplements under the agency’s current structure and called on Congress to create new rules for the massive and growing market. The marijuana-derived products have become increasingly popular in lotions, tinctures and foods, while their […]
18 hours ago
FILE - An employee works in the battery assembly hall at the BMW Spartanburg plant in Greer, S.C., ...
Associated Press

US economy slowed but still grew at 2.9% rate last quarter

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy expanded at a 2.9% annual pace from October through December, ending 2022 with momentum despite the pressure of high interest rates and widespread fears of a looming recession. Thursday’s estimate from the Commerce Department showed that the nation’s gross domestic product — the broadest gauge of economic output — […]
18 hours ago
(AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)...
Associated Press

Pope Francis discusses his health, critics and future of papacy

In his first interview since the death of retired Pope Benedict XVI, Francis tells The Associated Press he plans to continue for as long as he can as bishop of Rome
2 days ago
Eric Sham visits a makeshift memorial on Tuesday, January 24, 2023 for those killed in a mass shoot...
Associated Press

US Secret Service releases report on mass attacks

A new report on mass attacks calls for communities to intervene early when they see warning signs of violence.
2 days ago
A bus carrying migrants who crossed the border from Mexico into Texas arrives into the Port Authori...
Associated Press

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs keeps migrant transport program, with additions

Democratic Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs is defending her decision to continue her Republican predecessor's program to transport migrants out of border communities.
2 days ago
Brandon Gladney (U.S. Marshals Service Photo)...

Fugitive wanted in Milwaukee for 2020 murder arrested in Phoenix

A fugitive wanted for a murder in Wisconsin over two years ago was arrested Tuesday in Phoenix, authorities said.
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Company looking for oldest air conditioner and wants to reward homeowner with new one

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.
Fiesta Bowl Foundation

Celebrate 50 years of Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade magic!

Since its first production in the early 1970s, the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe has been a staple of Valley traditions, bringing family fun and excitement to downtown Phoenix.
Children’s Cancer Network

Children’s Cancer Network celebrates cancer-fighting superheroes, raises funds during September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Jace Hyduchak was like most other kids in his kindergarten class: He loved to play basketball, dress up like his favorite superheroes and jump as high as his pint-sized body would take him on his backyard trampoline.
Katrina floodwall case heads to New Orleans trial