The recent news that a federal judge has ruled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and by extension, the U.S. Government, liable for at least some of the preventable disasters associated with Hurricane Katrina should lead the government to do what it should have done long ago: Provide generous, long-tail assistance to help the residents of New Orleans get back on their feet.
To see why, just take a moment to compare what “we’ve” done for victims of another disaster: September 11. In that case, the Victim Compensation Fund was created to pay not even the survivors of that horrific event, but their families — in some cases, to the tune of millions of dollars. In all, the Fund spent just under seven billion dollars in taxpayer money for an event that the government was not responsible for.
With respect for the victims of that tragedy, I argued against such lavish compensation here and here. Part of the motivation was to avoid potentially crushing liability against the airlines for their dismal security procedures,1 but that would have better been done through a direct bailout of those industries. Wait! We’d never bail out a failing company.
By contrast, the government awarded only the minimal payments available under federal disaster relief to Katrina’s victims, despite documented negligence (or worse) on the part of state, local, and federal government. And the federal government, rather than defend the suits against them on the merits, has raised every possible procedural argument. First, they argued that they couldn’t be responsible for the flood-induced breaches of levees that the Corps had built or maintained, because of the Flood Control Act of 1928. That Act does clearly provide governmental immunity in connection with flood control projects, so the court held that the statute barred some of the claims.
Other claims, though, were based on acts of shocking negligence in connection with the maintenance of the White Elephant known as the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO), a navigation short-cut from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. Here is a good summary of the allegations of negligence, which were accepted by the court after a long trial:
The claimants alleged the government failed to properly design, construct, operate and maintain the MRGO, a 76-mile man-made ship navigation channel that connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of New Orleans Inner Harbor Navigation Canal. The claimants further alleged that the design of the MRGO (with the surface width being wider than the bottom width), along with the inevitable widening that would occur from waves in the channel, allowed the MRGO to act as a “funnel” for the Hurricane Katrina storm surge. Additionally, the salt water that was allowed to enter the MRGO from the Gulf allegedly killed off the storm-slowing plants and vegetation, further contributing to the “funnel” effect for the storm surge.
Since MR-GO isn’t a flood control project, the immunity probably doesn’t apply. But because of where MR-GO is situated relative to the damaged and destroyed neighborhoods, only residents in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish were able to recover. Others are out of luck.
The government is considering an appeal. If one is filed, the brief would likely argue that the more general immunity under the Federal Tort Claims Act protects them. Interpreting and applying that immunity is challenging (for reasons that would numb any and all non-lawyers, and many lawyers as well), but my guess is that the judge’s opinion on that issue would stand.
The Government is likely afraid of the many millions of dollars it might have to pay out once others join the suit. But anyone who hasn’t already filed is barred by the statute of limitations. So the total payout that would be required isn’t clear; and in any event almost surely wouldn’t approach the amount paid out for 9/11.
Here’s a radical idea, government lawyers (Obama Administration): Settle the case! Offer structured payments. Set up enterprise zones and incentives for loans to start-up businesses. Build homes for people. Rebuild the private medical and public health infrastructure. Such initiatives are long overdue. I have mixed feelings about tort liability against the government in any case, but surely some kind of considered, carefully designed compensation has by now become a national imperative. It won’t erase this national disgrace from our history — nothing can, or should — but it would be a compelling show of compassion.
- So now we have to divide our personal hygiene products into small bottles in order to board a plane. ↩