Katrina trial: New Orleans' truth commission
Six hurricane survivors sue the US Army Corps of Engineers, as many city residents still try to understand the forces behind the storm's aftermath.
Lorraine Washington left her still-wrecked house in New Orleans East on Tuesday to seek the answer to a question that has plagued her every day since hurricane Katrina sank the Crescent City under a wall of water: Why?Skip to next paragraph
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Her destination: Federal district court, where six plaintiffs are suing the US Army Corps of Engineers over the creation and maintenance of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet ("Mr. GO"), a shipping channel that they say introduced fatal risk to a fragile levee-protection system. The government argues that the magnitude of the storm, by itself, caused the flooding of New Orleans, the deaths of more than 700 city residents, and $90 billion of damage across the region.
"I have to believe that justice is going to be received, that we're going to be made whole again," says Ms. Washington, an unemployed government clerk. She says she attended the trial in an attempt to finally understand the physical, geological, and political forces that created not the storm, but its horrid aftermath.
A win by the plaintiffs – six hurricane survivors, including a local TV news anchor and his wife – in this "first real Katrina trial" could pave the way for a class-action lawsuit against the Corps, as well as set the tone for future US coastal policy.
But for many New Orleanians – especially those in the hard-hit St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans East, and the Lower Ninth Ward – the Mr. GO trial represents their own form of truth commission: It's a chance not just to lay blame, but also to bridge what has been called a "deep gorge of distrust" between residents and the US agency charged with protecting them from the sea.
"Someone has to take responsibility, if only to make sure processes and policy are improved and grievances are addressed," says Silas Lee, a sociologist at Xavier University in New Orleans, who adds that uncertainty over the city's flood control has stymied the return of a third of the city's residents. "People want closure to this."
A Category 3 hurricane, Katrina tore through New Orleans on a Monday morning. On Tuesday, as the sun shone and residents began to relax, water came pouring through the streets as high waters broke and overtopped levees.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, Jimmy Braxton's sister climbed with her two small kids into the attic. Holding the kids, she craned for air as the water rose. Another relative swam to the house and busted through the roof. She had to let go of one of the kids to reach through the hole. Only one child survived.
Today, Mr. Braxton lives with that image – and his sister's choice – every day. The fact that a favorable verdict in the Mr. GO case could mean a future class-action lawsuit – possibly with cash damages for residents – doesn't assuage him.
"How can you pay us for my family's loss or put a price on these scars?" said Braxton, a graying, lanky black man standing on a deserted street in the Lower Ninth Ward on Tuesday. "No dollar amount in the world can heal the pain and suffering" of watching the storm's devastation.
At the same time, he adds, "If the Corps didn't do its job, somebody should be held responsible. Somebody's got to answer to something."
At stake in the trial is between $10 billion and $100 billion in possible damages, on top of the $107 billion that US taxpayers have already poured into the rebuilding of New Orleans and the devastated Mississippi Gulf Coast.