Federal Court Issues Decision Critical of the Corps of Engineers While Granting the Corps Immunity Related to Hurricane Katrina
A decision has been issued in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, by Judge Stanwood R. Duval, Jr., dismissing the consolidated class action lawsuit against the United States Army Corps of Engineers for the failure of the Orleans Parish outfall canals and, in particular, the 17th Street Canal that allegedly accounted for approximately 80% of the flooding of downtown New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (“In Re: Katrina Canal Breaches Consolidated Litigation, No. 05-4182 E.D. La.). The only remaining defendants are the Orleans Parish Levee Board and the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board.
Judge Duval ruled that the 17th Street, London and Orleans Avenue outfall canals were federal flood control projects and therefore statutorily immune from suit under the Flood Control Act of 1928. In an opinion that was very critical of the Corps of Engineers, Judge Duval stated the following:
“While the United States government is immune for legal liability for the defalcations alleged herein, it is not free, nor should it be, from posterity’s judgment concerning its failure to accomplish what was its task. The citizens of each and every city in this great nation have come to depend on their government and its agencies to perform certain tasks which have been assigned to federal agencies by laws passed by Congress and overseen by the Executive Branch.
It should not be unreasonable for those citizens to rely on their agents, whom they pay through their taxes, to perform the tasks assigned in a timely and competent way. However, because of § 702c, there is neither incentive, nor punishment to insure that our own government performs these tasks correctly. There is no provision in the law which allows this Court to avoid the immunity provided by § 702c; gross incompetence receives the same treatment as simple mistake.
This story–fifty years in the making–is heart-wrenching. Millions of dollars were squandered in building a levee system with respect to these outfall canals which was known to be inadequate by the Corps’ own calculations. The byzantine funding and appropriation methods for this undertaking were in large part a cause of this failure. In addition, the failure of Congress to oversee the building of the LPV and the failure to recognize that it was flawed from practically the outset–using the wrong calculations for storm surge, failing to take into account subsidence, failing to take into account issues of the strength of canal walls at the 17th Street Canal while allowing the scouring out of the canal–rest with those who are charged with oversight.
The cruel irony here is that the Corps cast a blind eye, either as a result of executive directives or bureaucratic parsimony, to flooding caused by drainage needs and until otherwise directed by Congress, solely focused on flooding caused by storm surge. Nonetheless, damage caused by either type of flooding is ultimately borne by the same public fisc. Such egregious myopia is a caricature of bureaucratic inefficiency.
It is not within this Court’s power to address the wrongs committed. It is hopefully within the citizens of the United States’ power to address the failures of our laws and agencies. If not, it is certain that another tragedy such as this will occur again.”