Plaintiffs wrap up their case in MRGO trial

Published 12:49 am Sunday, May 3, 2009

Plaintiffs in a pivotal lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers over flooding during Hurricane Katrina wrapped up their case Thursday, capping nine days of testimony at a federal trial.

Their suit charges that the corps’ failure to maintain a 1960s channel called the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet turned the 76-mile shipping route into a “hurricane highway” during Katrina and caused widespread flooding of eastern New Orleans, the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish.

The trial could last two more weeks as the Corps of Engineers makes its case. The corps is expected to call several corps officials and independent experts.

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The last witness for the plaintiffs was Henry “Junior” Rodriguez Jr., a longtime and provocative St. Bernard Parish politician. Rodriguez was the president of St. Bernard Parish when Katrina hit Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005, killing more than 1,500 people.

Before stepping down from the witness box, U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. allowed Rodriguez to make a final statement. And the politician — a looming figure with his black and brown cowboy garb, big belt buckles, walking cane and blunt language — spoke with emotion.

“What it took Mother Nature to put together in 1,000 years, the corps destroyed it in 40 years,” Rodriguez said, referring to the channel’s destruction of marsh and swamp forest.

“I’ll be totally honest with you,” Rodriguez said. “I think, today, that the corps and the steamboat association should be indicted for murder. That’s how I feel about the whole thing.”

“Thank you, sir,” Duval said.

The Corps of Engineers referred questions to the Department of Justice. Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, said “we would have no comment in regard to” Rodriguez’s statement.

Shipping industry leaders — including Sean Duffy, the president of the Gulf States Maritime Association, formerly known as the Steamship Association of Louisiana — did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment. Shippers, along with Louisiana politicians like former U.S. Sen. Allen Ellender and former U.S Rep. F. Edward Hebert, backed the construction of the MRGO.

The plaintiffs encompass five individuals and one business. Each claimant is seeking between $300,000 and $400,000 in damages. If these plaintiffs are victorious, more than 120,000 other individuals, businesses and government entities could have a better shot at claiming billions of dollars in damages.

The corps argued it was immune from liability since the channel is part of New Orleans’ flood control system, but a judge allowed the case to move forward since the plaintiffs claim the shipping channel was a navigation project.

The corps also has said the channel had no effect on storm surge.

Work on the channel began in the late 1950s, but scientists say construction of the channel destroyed about 18,000 acres of marsh and 1,500 acres of cypress swamps. And the channel itself was never popular with ships; few used it before Katrina. Larger vessels continued using the Mississippi River instead since a bigger lock to the outlet was never built.

The corps, which has acknowledged the area’s flood risk, is in the process of closing the channel with rocks. The agency is also building a $1.3 billion floodgate.