New Orleans Residents Sue Army Corps

Thursday, February 8th 2007, 8:56 pm
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ A group of residents whose neighborhood was flooded during Hurricane Katrina added a lawsuit Thursday to the mounting case against the Army Corps of Engineers, saying the agency knew flood walls were unstable.

The suit, which seeks class-action status and unspecified damages, was filed in federal court on behalf of seven residents of the Lakeview area near the 17th Street Canal. The suit alleges that dredging approved by the Corps weakened the soil that supported the canal's levees.

If class-action status is granted, tens of thousands of New Orleans residents could be included, and claims in the tens of billions of dollars could be involved.

A decision last week bolstered the suit's basic premise _ the liability of the Corps.

In that ruling, a federal judge allowed a suit to proceed charging the Corps was liable for the flooding of eastern New Orleans and suburban St. Bernard Parish by waters from the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a navigation channel known locally as Mr. Go.

Thursday's suit was filed by a team of trial lawyers led by Joseph Bruno, who has made a name for himself as a go-to attorney in the mounting case against the Corps. He is also involved in the Mr. Go lawsuit.

``That decision is a clear blueprint on the court's thinking,'' Bruno said at a news conference at his law office downtown. ``We have asked for every damage that could possibly be sustained by anyone in this horrible catastrophe.''

The Corps, which typically does not speak about pending litigation, declined to comment.

The viability of Thursday's suit hinges on whether the 17th Street Canal should be considered a navigable waterway or a flood-control project. The canal is one of three main arteries that serve as corridors to pump water out of the city, which sits below sea level, during heavy rainfall. Levees on two of the canals broke during Katrina and caused widespread flooding.

If the court determines that the 17th Street Canal was a flood control project, then the 1928 Flood Control Act would shield the Corps from liability. But if a judge decides it is a navigable waterway, then the Corps, and by extension the federal government, may have to defend their actions at trial.

Though primarily a drainage waterway, fishing boats and other small vessels were tied up along the canal near its mouth for years before Katrina.

The lawsuit's claim is rooted in a permit the Corps issued in 1984 allowing the city to dredge and deepen the canal, increasing its volume. That action, the suit claims, caused ``subsurface destabilization of the levee'' and led to its collapse under the pressure of Katrina's storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain in August 2005.

The plaintiffs argue that the Corps knew about the weak soil and that academic studies and maps dating to the mid-1800s showed that the ground under the canal walls comprised unstable soil.