Ask residents of New Orleans who they think was responsible for the drowning of their city during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and without hesitation many will say the Army Corps of Engineers. U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. backed that assessment in a blistering ruling last week that held the federal agency liable for damages. After earlier dismissing the claim that construction of the 44-year-old Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO) shipping channel was responsible for the flooding of the Crescent City, he ruled that the corps' neglect of the 76-mile passage contributed to the disaster.
"It is this court's opinion that the negligence of the corps, in this instance failing to maintain the MRGO properly, was not policy, but insouciance, myopia and shortsightedness," Duval wrote. Noting that the corps had known for more than 40 years about the deterioration of the MRGO, he added, "The corps had an opportunity to take a myriad of actions to alleviate this deterioration and failed to do so. Clearly, the expression 'talk is cheap' applies here."
As the MRGO eroded, so did the levees. Duval wrote that because of what he described as "monumental negligence," the channel grew "to two to three times its design width." This "created a more forceful frontal wave attack on the levee" that was supposed to protect St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward from the storm surge.
The lawsuit was brought by seven plaintiffs. Duval ruled against the plaintiffs from New Orleans East but awarded $720,000 to those from St. Bernard and the Lower Ninth.
The judge's decision could lead to thousands of people joining class actions seeking billions of dollars in damages. Lawyers for the plaintiffs are calling on the federal government to offer a universal settlement with the people of New Orleans.
The Obama administration and members of Congress should listen. While there are limits on how much people should expect — the government is strapped for cash, after all — it's difficult to see what purpose would be served by dragging this case through appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Unless the government has a persuasive defense for the negligence decried by the district judge, it would be better to settle now.