The tail that wags the dog

Joseph "New New" Adkins
May 19, 2009
Irene Marie Deroche Lajaunie
May 22, 2009

When Hurricane Katrina “barked” its way through New Orleans four years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers listened and changed its levee design criteria to unattainable standards. It was part of the Corps’ effort to delay any future hurricane projects and protect its “tail.”

However, a U.S. District Court judge’s upcoming decision could be the catalyst to get the ball rolling for one major, local hurricane protection project – a case that could result in the tail wagging the dog.

Many New Orleans residents rushed to court after Hurricane Katrina to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for what they claimed was poor hurricane levee design. These suits were quickly dismissed, citing immunities the Corps enjoys – the federal government cannot be held liable for failed hurricane protection projects.

But, a ruling by U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. last year exposed the Corps tail once again. He ruled that the Corps was not immune to liability resulting from navigation projects, and it is this liability that is being put to test.

Lawyers representing more than 120,000 individuals, businesses and government bodies testified for the past four weeks, claiming the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO), a 76-mile shipping channel the Corps dug in the late 1950s, led to the destruction of the environment southeast of New Orleans and the devastating flooding during Katrina.

The government’s lawyers declined to discuss the case, but from court documents and testimony, the Associated Press reported that Army Corps officials and experts challenge the notion that the MRGO turned into a catastrophic “hurricane highway” that funneled storm surge into New Orleans.

“There have been cases like this,” Gerald Galloway, a levee expert and civil engineering professor at the University of Maryland, told AP, “but nothing on the scope of the MRGO because you’re bringing in all the losses of New Orleans.”

A ruling against the Corps could have a significant impact on part of the local Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane protection system. The 72 miles of levees, floodgates and lock complex has been dogged by Corps delays, studies and apathy.

If Judge Duval rules that the MRGO navigation project contributed to the flooding of New Orleans, local levee board officials will remind the Corps that their tail is just as exposed by the Houma Navigation Canal.

Part of the Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane protection system is a major lock complex to be constructed on the HNC.

The Corps has had this “ball” in its mouth for years, and has been content to simply “wag its tail” and delay the design and construction of the lock.

A favorable ruling by Duval could finally result in the leash being taken off of the HNC lock complex – the single biggest piece of the Morganza Project. It could be the “tail” levee board officials need to finally “wag the dog.”