NEW ORLEANS (AP) The Army Corps of Engineers is back on trial, seven years after Hurricane Katrina's epic storm surge shredded the flood protection system it had built for New Orleans.
Starting Wednesday, a federal judge will hear testimony on claims that excavation work by the corps and one of its contractors caused the failure of floodwalls meant to protect the city's Lower 9th Ward and neighboring St. Bernard Parish.
The corps rejects the plaintiffs' negligence claims, countering that water from Katrina's rain and surge overtopped and overwhelmed floodwalls along the east side of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, also known locally as the Industrial Canal.
The trial will be the second to pit New Orleans residents against the corps over damage from flooding in Katrina's aftermath. The storm struck Aug. 29, 2005, leaving about 80 percent of the city under water after levees and floodwalls failed.
The case will be heard without a jury and decided by U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr., who ruled in 2009 on separate but related claims that the corps' shoddy work on a shipping channel left the same areas vulnerable to flooding.
If Duval rules for the plaintiffs again, the case could evolve into a class-action involving many more claims against the corps.
Joseph Bruno, a lead plaintiffs' attorney for both cases, said more than $1 billion could be at stake if Duval rules against the corps and its contractor, Washington Group International Inc., after the latest trial.
"Everybody knows they screwed up," Bruno said. "The only question is how and whether they have to pay."
In March, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Duval's landmark ruling that the federal government isn't immune from lawsuits blaming Katrina's flood damage on the corps' operation and maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet navigation channel.
The second trial centers on a lock replacement project that began in 1999, when the corps hired WGI to perform excavation and backfilling work near the canal floodwalls.