Will the Katrina Ruling Prevent Another Disaster?

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Justin Sullivan / Getty

Water flows through a breach in the repaired Inner Harbor Canal toward the Ninth Ward district on Sept. 23, 2005, in New Orleans

There can be something thrilling about accountability, so it was nice to see a federal judge declare the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers directly responsible for the destruction of most of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The blistering ruling validates the rage felt by so many survivors — and may put them in line for some much needed cash. It also provides an always welcome opportunity for those of us who have banged our spoons on our high chairs about the culpability of the Corps again and again and again to say we told you so. And it could help spread a message to millions of Americans who still think the tragedy of Katrina was the government's response to the disaster rather than the government's creation of the disaster.

It's hard to get too excited about the decision, though, for two reasons. First, as great as it was to see a federal judge accuse the Corps of "negligence" and "nonfeasance" and other legally awful behavior, the case actually turned on a technicality of sorts — and may well be overturned on appeal. Believe it or not, the spectacular incompetence of the Corps may ultimately help its defense. And second, even if the Corps does lose on appeal, the resulting embarrassment — and the potential fiscal nightmare for the country — would be unlikely to promote the kinds of changes that would prevent another Corps-made disaster.

But before we dwell on the bad news, let's take a moment to enjoy the deliciously brutal opinion of U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. "The Corps' lassitude and failure to fulfill its duties resulted in a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions," he wrote. "The Corps' negligence resulted in the wasting of millions of dollars in flood-protection measures and billions of dollars in congressional outlays to help this region recover."

The Corps betrayed New Orleans in a number of ways. Its flood walls played matador defense because they were badly designed and badly engineered, then built in soggy soils in the wrong locations; the commander of the Corps, General Carl Strock, admitted his agency's "catastrophic failure" and submitted his resignation nine months after the storm, long after the nation had stopped paying attention. The Corps also exposed New Orleans to storm surges by manhandling and straitjacketing the Mississippi River over the past 80 years, blocking the flow of silt to southern Louisiana, gradually sinking the Big Easy below sea level and destroying a third of the coastal wetlands and barrier islands that once provided the city's natural hurricane protection.

But that's not why the Corps lost this case. The plaintiffs could not sue the Corps for botching flood protection, because Congress gave it "sovereign immunity" to protect its flood-protection projects from that sort of lawsuit. So the suit focused on a canal called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a classic Army Corps navigation boondoggle that was designed as a shortcut for ships to the Port of New Orleans — although ships rarely use it — and ended up instead as a shortcut for hurricanes. The plaintiffs argued that the so-called Mr. Go — which wasn't a flood-protection project, so theoretically it could be exempted from sovereign immunity — amplified and accelerated Katrina's surge. That happened to be true. In fact, locals have been complaining about Mr. Go ever since it intensified the surge of Hurricane Betsy in 1965; Louisiana politicians and Corps engineers ignored them.

In reality, though, Mr. Go was not the primary cause of the disaster, and this could yet get the Corps off the hook. Engineers have calculated that it raised the height of the surge by about two feet, still not enough to overtop the most important levees. The canal has carried enough saltwater from the Gulf to destroy an estimated 100 square miles of valuable freshwater wetlands, but that's just a tiny slice of the land-loss crisis. The Corps can still make the case that adequate flood walls would have withstood the extra surge created by Mr. Go — and that the inadequacy of the flood walls is covered by sovereign immunity. In other words: Don't blame our lousy navigation project; blame our lousy flood-protection project!

The more important question is whether the Nov. 18 ruling will lead to the reform of the U.S.'s dysfunctional water-resources system, which consistently produces white elephants like Mr. Go — as well as a little-used $750 million navigation lock a stone's throw from the flood walls that failed during Katrina — but doesn't address the nation's water-resources problems. The Corps was spending more money in Louisiana than in any other state before Katrina, but most of it was wasted on pork projects desired by shipping interests, farming interests, oil interests and other interests that haven't shown much interest in protecting vulnerable families from the ravages of Mother Nature.

The answer to the question, most likely, is no. Members of Congress love the Corps, because they love to cut ribbons at water projects that steer jobs and money to their districts and donors. Reforms have been stalling on Capitol Hill for a decade. Scandals haven't stopped the madness, and neither has the drowning of a great city. Maybe Judge Duval's ruling will change everything. But if you live in southern Louisiana, you still might want to elevate your home.