NEW ORLEANS (CN) – A coastal geologist testified in Federal Court on Monday that the Army Corps of Engineers had been warned that flaws in the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet posed disastrous scenarios, including the likelihood of “catastrophic damage to urban areas by a hurricane surge coming up this waterway,” from as far back as the 1950s – well before the channel was built.
Dr. Sherwood Gagliano was the first witness called in this landmark hearing in which six St. Bernard Parish plaintiffs charge the government with negligence for the widespread flooding that destroyed their homes and businesses in August 2005, during Hurricane Katrina. Gagliano called the destruction caused by Katrina “one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of the United States.”
The court was packed Monday morning, most of the members wearing black suits and most of them easily provoked to laughter by the judge and by the plaintiff attorney. Even the defense attorneys incited a chuckle here and there.
Despite U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr.’s lighthearted reminders that he knows the swamps, having grown up in Houma, La., the prevailing feeling in the courtroom was bittersweet.
The judge surprised the public last month when he ruled that this lawsuit could be heard in court. He is presiding without a jury.
Duval said the case will basically come down to “how much water would have occurred (from Katrina) without the [Mississippi River Gulf Outlet].”
The trial will be used as a guide, Duval said, because a win for the plaintiffs would mean that the issue “ultimately goes to appeals for class actions involving tens to hundreds of thousands of people,” and at least as much money awarded.
In his testimony Monday, which lasted roughly three hours, Dr. Gagliano assisted John Andry, the plaintiffs’ attorney, in summarizing five decades’ worth of reports he prepared concerning the MRGO. Many of the reports were prepared at the request of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Gagliano said the channel’s “funnel” properties can cause storm surges by drastically elevating the tide water during storms. The MRGO is also blamed for the deterioration of wetlands, which act as a natural barrier against hurricanes.
Gagliano reported that the total area of wetlands lost since the corps’ 1965 completion of the MRGO is roughly “six times the size of Manhattan.”
The Corps of Engineers has a long history of immunity from liability over flooding, and has argued that it is immune from liability now because the MRGO is part of New Orleans’ flood control system. The corps additionally argues that “the only way in which the catastrophic flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard and New Orleans East could have been avoided would have been through the construction of a better hurricane protection system.”
Duval has allowed the case to go forward because St. Bernard Parish residents claim the channel was a project for navigation – and not as part of New Orleans’ flood control system.
Before turning questioning over to the defense, Andry asked Gagliano, “did the condition of the wetlands around the MRGO get any better in the 30 years after your reports were issued?”
“No,” Galiano said. “Tragically, no.”
The defense attorney took the stand and silences stretched out in intervals as she grappled with a defense following Gagliano’s lengthy testimony. Members of the court chuckled when, having misplaced an exhibit, she blurted: “Anyway, it’s not important!”
Putting on a slide depicting a levee with grass growing on it, the attorney asked Gagliano, “Can you tell this is a levee?”
“Yes,” Gagliano said.
“Are you able to identify where this levee is located?”
“No,” Gagliano said.
The government’s response to threats posed by the MRGO’s design and wetland erosion has been heavily criticized for unnecessary delays and wasteful spending.
Judge Duval asked the attorney to verify where the levee was located and she said she did not know. He asked if she knew when that photo was taken, and she said she also didn’t know.
After a considerable pause, the defense attorney asked Gagliano if he was being paid by the plaintiffs for his appearance as a fact witness. Gagliano stated that he was. He added, “I am being paid by the plaintiffs to be here. My rate as a coastal scientist is $140 an hour,” and went on to say that to be in the courtroom he was being paid $300 an hour.
The defense attorney said she had no further questions.
Judge Duval is known for his 2000 injunction barring the state of Louisiana from issuing “Choose Life” vanity automobile license plates.
After Gagliano’s testimony, Kent Lattimore, a key plaintiff who lost his house and his business during Katrina, smiled when asked about the trial. “It makes me sad,” he said. “The whole thing makes me sad.”