Court Rules Feds at Fault for Katrina Flooding

PHOTO: Michael I. Niman / 2009

Will Obama choose to inherit Bush's mess?

A federal district court in Eastern Louisiana just confirmed what we reported in this column 10 days after New Orleans was laid to waste by floodwaters in 2005—that the flooding of much of New Orleans was a human-made disaster.

We reported how the US Congress recognized back in 1995 that New Orleans’ aging levee system, designed to hold back the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, and Lake Pontchartrain—all massive waterways that actually tower over the geographic bowl that is New Orleans—was sinking in the muck that passes for earth in Southern Louisiana.

In response to this looming crisis, Congress created the Southeastern Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (SELA), funded it with $430 million, and set a goal of shoring up New Orleans’ levee system by 2005—which ironically turned out to be the year that the tidal surge from Hurricane Katrina flooded the city. While it’s debatable whether $430 million would have been able to remedy the effects of neglecting the levee system for decades, the argument became academic when the George W. Bush administration, as we reported back in 2005, slashed SELA funding over 44 percent. This left funding for only 20 percent of the Army Corps of Engineers SELA budget, bringing construction to a halt on the mostly completed project, months before Katrina’s tidal surge hit.

Last week, US District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr., in a landmark ruling, placed the blame for the flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and neighboring St. Bernard Parish directly with the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency tasked with maintaining Southern Louisiana’s canals and levees. According to Duval’s ruling, the ill-maintained MRGO canal, a 76-mile waterway that swelled over the last four decades to three times its designed width, brought the storm surge directly in from the Gulf of Mexico and threw it against the aging levee system protecting New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish. Specifically, Duval wrote, “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.”

Once having built the system, the argument goes, the Corps was responsible for maintaining it, and not letting it erode into the destructive force that it eventually became. Duval cited this lack of maintenance as “monumental neglect,” finding the Corps liable for the billions of dollars in damages (and, one would assume, the horrific loss of human life) that resulted from, as the judge put it, the “more forceful frontal wave attack on the levee.”

This decision is big. It assigns fiscal responsibility for the disaster that led to a massive diaspora displacing more than one third of New Orleans’ population. Duval’s ruling is the first sign of hope in four years that many of New Orleans’ displaced residents may finally be able to afford to come home.

This isn’t good news for everyone, however, as certain folks like the new New Orleans. The floods reengineered New Orleans’ social fabric. Gone are its poorest and youngest residents. The number of families with children under 18 living in New Orleans has dropped by a third since the floods. The number of high school dropouts declined by about 20 percent. The population of recent immigrants to the US has increased by nearly 50 percent, while the city’s black population has declined by about 10 percent. The new New Orleans has replaced much of its low-wage black workforce with immigrants, diluting the black community’s historic political power while replacing empowered workers with a more easily oppressed immigrant workforce. The number of children requiring high-cost public schooling are gone, as are most of the public schools they went to.

In order to make sure New Orleans’s poorest displaced residents didn’t return, most of the public housing complexes they lived in, including those not touched by the flood waters, were demolished. At the time, Republican Representative Richard Baker of Baton Rouge typified the racist glee some good ol’ boys couldn’t contain, explaining, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

After the city started to return to life, many tenants who previously lived in privately owned housing were barred from returning by average rent increases of 40 percent. Even many low-income homeowners found barriers prohibiting them from returning, ranging from poor or no flood insurance to the city’s failure to replace destroyed infrastructure in their former neighborhoods.

Many folks are quite happy to see New Orleans’ displaced population stay displaced. Their continued displacement, however, remains as a legacy injustice left behind by the Bush administration. Creating a means to correct this injustice is part of the “change” voters demanded in 2008. The Obama Justice Department’s decision to continue the Bush administration’s strategy of fighting against the New Orleans diaspora’s damage claims is the antithesis of change. It’s taken four long years for this groundbreaking lawsuit to snail its way through the federal court system. By all indications, the Justice Department will appeal this decision, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court—another Bush legacy—leaving New Orleans’ refugees living in limbo for another decade. If this is the path the Justice Department takes, then it will be Obama who ultimately takes ownership for the greatest domestic injustice the US has seen in the 21st century.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous Artvoice columns are available at, archived at, and available globally through syndication.

ęCopyright 2009

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