Katrina Flood Trial|Begins With Tears

     NEW ORLEANS (CN) – “There was 10, 11 feet of water in that house, and it destroyed everything I had,” an elderly man testified Wednesday as trial began to determine the cause of flooding during Hurricane Katrina.
     “When I seen that house, the whole dream I had, it was like it went up in smoke,” 72-year-old Alvin Livers said of seeing his flooded Lower Ninth Ward home for the first time after Katrina.
     Livers and his wife evacuated to Baton Rouge before Katrina made landfall. He said that after the storm, before residents were permitted back into the city, they saw their flooded house on CNN, amid footage of the inundated city.
     Fred Holmes Jr., a former resident of Arabi, in St. Bernard Parish, recalled returning to his “dream home,” where he and his wife planned to spend their next 30 years.
     “It looked like a bomb went off,” Holmes said. “What was on the ceiling was on the ground, what was on the ground was on the ceiling.”
     Holmes cried as he recalled the lost contents of their flooded house, including his wife’s wedding dress.
     Holmes and Livers are among plaintiffs who say the Army Corps of Engineers and Washington Group International, which contracted with the Corps of Engineers, left levees vulnerable to flooding by failing to adequately fill holes after removing buildings in a project to improve a shipping lock.
     Plaintiffs say the poorly filled-in holes allowed water to seep underneath the 14-foot-high flood walls.
     In addition to seepage, the walls broke in two places during the storm.
     Surveyor Chad Morris testified for the plaintiffs that the Corps of Engineers and Washington Group International had removed hundreds of deep pilings from the area and used only loosely packed sand to refill the holes.
     Morris testified that his investigation found extensive construction, excavation and pile removal activities in the vicinity of the breaches to the flood wall.
     Although Morris’ testimony did not directly address whether water could have seeped through the loosely packed soil, he said holes in the ground of a landfill or industrial site – where there would be concerns of toxic chemicals seeping into the soil – would be filled in using a different method and a material with more density than sand.
     Evidence on seepage will be a key element in the trial. If the flooding was in fact from seepage, the Corps of Engineers and Washington Group could be held liable.
     Attorneys for the Corps of Engineers and Washington Group say it is not possible that water seeped through the walls. They say the storm surge overtopped the walls. The companies would be immune from liability if the flooding was caused by the storm surge overtopping levees, according to a previous ruling.
     U.S. Judge Stanwood Duval Jr., who is overseeing this case, previously ruled that the 1928 Flood Control Act gives the Corps of Engineers immunity from flooding caused by the failure of its flood-protection projects, even if the failure is the result of the Corps’ negligence.
     In this case, because the project that allegedly compromised the levees involved lock expansion, which is not related to the flood protection system, the Corps and Washington Group could be found liable for damages if the massive flooding was caused from seepage.
     Morris’ testimony stretched on for much of the day and was characterized by monotonous charts and graphs and seemingly endless objections from defense attorneys.
     Testimony from Livers and Holmes added an element of reality to allegations of the Corps of Engineers’ and Washington Group’s careless improvement work.
     “The things I did when I went back?” Livers asked. “I cried, was the first thing. My mom passed that July, and I stood up good when I seen my brothers and sisters, but I didn’t stand up good when I seen that house.”
     Livers said he bought the house for $17,000 in 1971. Over the years he made several improvements to it, including adding two rooms to the back and extensive renovations.
     “I was declared not in a flood zone when I bought the house,” Livers testified: that was why he did not have flood insurance.
     “It took me 30 years to pay for that house. I worked hard. I took odd jobs, I worked in the shipyard. … When I seen that house, the whole dream I had, it was like it went up in smoke,” Livers said.
     Livers said that when Katrina hit, on Aug. 29, 2005, he was 1 year away from retiring.
     “I was looking for the American dream, just like everyone,” he said.
     Photos of the house after the storm showed discolored walls and floors, furniture knocked over and covered in mold and debris.
     When asked by counsel why a dining room chair was in the den in one photo, while the dining room table was upside down on the living room floor, Livers said: “We had a lot of stuff that floated to different places.”
     Livers, who was born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, was 65 when Katrina came. After the storm, he said, he gutted the house himself and wanted to move back.
     He recalled standing in line for permits to work on his house.
     “It was early in the morning,” he recalled. “It looked like a Saints game, that’s how many people were trying to get permits.”
     Livers got the permits and began rebuilding his home, but soon ran into trouble.
     The wiring “was the part that got ugly,” he said. As soon as he put wire back in the house, it was stolen.
     He decided to bring into the house only items that he believed “no one would want, like two-by-fours,” but “those got taken too.”
     But it wasn’t the thefts that finally discouraged Livers and his wife from coming home. “As much as I talked about how beautiful it was to live in the area, after Katrina, the neighborhood wasn’t the same anymore,” Livers said.
     Livers and his wife both have health issues, but there was no longer a hospital in the area. Their church was no longer there, which Livers said was even harder on his wife, who was involved in the ministry. And their neighbors were gone.
     “We are talking about a city that was completely crippled,” Livers said. One time, he said, he had to drive 35 miles, to Boutte, just to get gas.
     “We had to sit down and we came to the conclusion that we couldn’t hang no more,” Livers said. “We had to make the decision to turn it loose.”
     Holmes said that despite the destruction of his house, he and his wife still owed nearly the entire $110,000 mortgage.
     He said they used federal Road Home money and what little they got from insurance to pay their mortgage, but were still paying off their destroyed house until August 2006 – one year after Katrina.
     Testimony in the trial resumes today (Thursday). The trial is set to last for 3 weeks.

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