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Katrina Ruling Could Lead To Class-Action Lawsuit

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A federal judge's ruling in New Orleans could dramatically change the lives of some people who lost their homes after Hurricane Katrina. The judge found yesterday that the Army Corps of Engineers failed to maintain the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, known by its initials as MR. GO, and is therefore directly responsible for flood damage. Three families and a business would be awarded damages, unless the ruling is overturned on appeal. And the case will surely encourage many others to bring suit.

The ruling comes down to judgments about what caused the terrible storm surge and flooding in a complicated mix of industrial waterways, levees and wetlands. Mark Schleifstein is environment reporter for the Times-Picayune. And he says the next steps in this case depend on people who filed claims for damages with the Army Corps two years ago.

MARK SCHLEIFSTEIN: Of the 470,000 people who filed claims, about 100,000 of those are in the two areas where this lawsuit seems to have set a precedent. So, they'll be able to go back to the court and ask for the case to be turned into a class action.

SIEGEL: When you say the two areas, you're talking about...

SCHLEIFSTEIN: The two areas being the Lower Ninth Ward, a portion of New Orleans, and then the St. Bernard Parish, largely the Chalmette community.

SIEGEL: So, the reasoning here, as to who should be covered by this ruling or who in the future might be covered by it, relies on how people now understand the waters of Katrina, what was responsible for the storm surge. Is it now commonly accepted that MR. GO, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, was a main culprit here or is that still in dispute?

SCHLEIFSTEIN: Well, that is still in dispute by scientists for the federal government, as opposed to the scientists who were supporting this particular ruling. But the reality is that it gets a bit more complicated. The judge had found last year in an earlier ruling involving failures of the levees in other areas of the city, that the Corps was culpable for the poor design of the levee system, but that it was immune from prosecution.

In this particular piece of the case, though, what the judge ruled was that in this area the Corps improperly maintained that channel in such a way that material underneath the levees sloughed into the canal and was dredged out of the canal, so, the levees were actually lower as a direct result of the canal being there. Plus, the loss of wetlands caused by erosion of canal by the ships that used it also increased the ability of the storm surge as it was coming in to actually erode away the levees during Katrina.

SIEGEL: Now, I've gotten the aerial tour of those disappearing wetlands, MR. GO and beyond, and it's staggering to see how many of the Barrier Islands have just gone away and how much land is now underwater. But a lot of that is for the industry that brought wealth to that part of Louisiana for natural gas drilling. Should the gas companies also be held liable under a ruling like this?

SCHLEIFSTEIN: Well, again, that's something that has not been litigated yet, and I don't know of anybody who's actually attempting to do that. But this navigation channel, it's very clear that it had direct effects on the wetlands that border the levee that the judge focused on in his ruling.

SIEGEL: Now, I know that the project of plugging up MR. GO began this year. How much progress has made been?

SCHLEIFSTEIN: It is plugged, for what's that worth, okay? There's a rock dike several miles below the Chalmette community, and there's a new barrier that has been built at the upper end of the canal. So the canal has been blocked off, but the environmental damage is a long way from being fixed. The Corps has estimated that it's going to take several hundreds of millions of dollars to even a billion dollars to rebuild all the wetlands in that area.

SIEGEL: Well, Mark, thank you very much for talking with us today.

SCHLEIFSTEIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: So, Mark Schleifstein, who is environment reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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