NEW ORLEANS (CN) – “You got these people denigrating you because you’re from New Orleans, telling you to get over (losing everything you own) … telling you to suck it up,” news anchor Norman Robinson testified Wednesday, one of six plaintiffs seeking damages for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers design and maintenance of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, and the disastrous flooding after Hurricane Katrina.
Robinson, a WDSU news anchor and former member of the CBS News White House Press Corps, lost his house in New Orleans East in 2005. Parts of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish ended up under 30 feet of water; houses were washed off their foundations and even the foundations swept away.
Five of the six plaintiffs took the stand Wednesday. They say the New Orleans-area levees would not have been breached during Hurricane Katrina had the Corps’ negligence not paved the way for the disaster.
The courtroom was thick with emotion as the plaintiffs recalled the chaos and destruction after the levees breached.
Earlier this week, coastal scientist Sherwood Gagliano went through the reports he and his staff had compiled, detailing 50 years of rapid loss of wetlands in the areas surrounding the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or MRGO.
Wetlands provide a natural barrier against storms. Gagliano and other scientists testified that the “funnel” properties of the MRGO create monstrous storm surges during hurricanes.
The courtroom was hushed Wednesday morning when his attorney asked Robinson, “How did listening to Gagliano make you feel, after losing everything you own?”
“Like an idiot,” Robinson said. “Like I should have known everything he knew – like I failed my family.”
Robinson said he sought psychiatric help after the storm, for feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts.
In other testimony, 80-year-old Anthony Franz Jr. recalled the custom design his grandmother had molded with her fingertips into wet plaster throughout his family home after its purchase in 1922. “A lot of sweat, and I would say a lot of love, went into that house,” Franz said.
This Lower Ninth Ward house was the first house in which Franz lived. His mother brought him home to it from the hospital. He lived there with his wife and his son until it was flooded during Katrina.
Franz said he applied for a Road Home grant for the restoration of the house following the storm, but was told renovation would be impossible because of the structural damage.
He said losing the home affected him “very deeply.” He recalled the “great sorrow” he felt when he “stood there and looked at the devastation … then I got mad, anger came when I asked, why did this happen … and who is responsible for this?”
“I guess the worst part of it is at night,” Franz said, “when the uncertainty and the fear sets in. … What are we going to do? Where will we go? But I guess eventually, to the day I die, I will carry that scar, from my family home.”
An attorney for the government reminded Franz that he had responded to a previous question by saying that his Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood always took water during hurricanes.
“Sure enough, there’s a storm and we take water, but we live upstairs,” Franz said. “That’s how we fully understood how bad it was when we walked up those beautiful concrete steps to the upstairs, and that’s when we understood that we had lost everything.”
Plaintiff Kent Lattimore, who seeks damages for his flooded home and mortgage business, said he does not look back. “It’s almost four years ago,” Lattimore said. “There’s no point in dwelling in the past.”
The former Tulane football player said he could not recall the name of the bank he bought his office building from or how much renovations had cost him, nor the contents of his office. He said he hardly recalls what kind of furniture he had in the mobile home he lived in or what his life was like before the storm.
His attorney, John Andry, tried to jog his memory, but Lattimore said it is “surreal to even think about pre-Katrina. It fried a lot of people, and I’m no exception.”
The few things he did remember, he articulated with detail: the “sense of foreboding” he had two days before Katrina made landfall. As he headed into the Gulf on a Carnival Cruise Line ship, Fantasy – the last cruise ship to leave New Orleans before the storm – he said he got a feeling in his gut and thought, “Oh no.”
“Prior to Katrina,” his attorney asked him, “did (your house or business) ever take water?”
“Is that area one of the highest parts of St. Bernard Parish?”
“Did you get any water you heard of during (Hurricane) Betsy?”
“I was not alive for Betsy, but I was told it did not take water.”
“Did you ever think you’d flood there?”
“No. I never thought we’d flood there.”
Andry asked if Lattimore could recall when he first saw the effects of the flood.
“I’ll never forget it,” Lattimore said. He recalled running to his car and seeing “a roof had come off, a roof! It was unbelievable … It was like a bomb had exploded. It was like the apocalypse.”
When he got to his house in St. Bernard Parish, “there was a 4-foot redfish right there on the porch,” Lattimore said.
“I put the key in the door and the lock swelled and I pulled the key out and had to bust the door in. It was just a nightmare. It was just a nightmare.”
Andry asked, “Was there anything salvageable in your (mortgage) building?”
“No, nothing. Everything, you know had water in it. I remember it being like 200 degrees. The water was waist deep. The water (had probably been) six or seven feet in the office … I went back to the mobile home, kicked in the door … the sofa’s actually floated up.”
“How is it psychologically when everything you had has been destroyed?”