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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.

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The federal Flood Control Act gives the Corps broad immunity and discretion, acknowledging the unforeseen risks that are implicit when people carve into the natural environment. But by allowing the case to go to court, the judge in the Mr. GO case rejected the Corps' assertions of "sovereign immunity" from lawsuits involving floods.

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"If successful, this case will set the tone for the future and enable people in St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans East, and the Lower Ninth Ward to seek redress for damages for what happened to them," says Elisa Gilbert, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.

Created in the 1960s – a decade, according to testimony, when the motto was "build anything" – the Mr. GO canal provided an alternate and shorter route for cargo ships from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico.

But the channel, coastal geologists have testified in this case, also increased salinity in the storm-slowing swamps, marshes, and tupelo stands that protected New Orleans' east side, killing much of the vegetation. And it created a "great pipe" to move storm surges straight into the city. After 30 years of warnings, the Corps in the late 1990s began moving to close Mr. GO but "dragged its heels," according to Sherwood Gagliano, an expert witness.

Duke geologist Orrin Pilkey, who has written several books about the Corps, says the Mr. GO trial could determine Washington's liability for a piecemeal coastal policy – and serve notice to Congress that a "major societal debate" needs to take place about the Corps' role, especially as coastal areas like the Mississippi Delta begin to see the effects of sea-level rise.

"For me, the best outcome would not be monetary, but forcing a change" in the Corps' unusual funding arrangement with Congress, says Mr. Pilkey. The Corps is the only US agency that relies entirely on earmarks – or "pork-barrel" funding – for its budgetary survival, creating, in Pilkey's view, an unhealthy relationship that undermines the Corps' ability to plan and make sensible recommendations.

Nationally, the Mr. GO case could inspire a bevy of lawsuits against the government and the Corps, also forcing Congress to get involved, says Erich Rapp, a Baton Rouge-based lawyer who blogs on coastal issues. A middle position would be for Congress to ask the US Court of Federal Claims "to look at the federal government's culpability" in preventing disasters like Katrina, Mr. Rapp says.

Then 79 years old, Harold Brehmer traversed the worst-flooded parts of St. Bernard Parish for three days after Katrina, at one point getting lost and climbing a baseball field fence to find high ground. He explains how huge water spouts came out of the sewers and "water came down the streets at 100 miles per hour." For three days, his family thought he was dead.

Today, Mr. Brehmer is one of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people who could be eligible for damages if federal district judge Stanwood Duval finds the Corps exhibited clear negligence in the building and maintenance of Mr. GO. Brehmer had to spend more than $20,000 of his own money to fix his small house in Chalmette, not counting heaps of charity help.

Though he plans to join a class-action lawsuit, his worldview remains sanguine.

"I'm not angry," he says. "I'm lucky."