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Corps Disputes That MRGO Created ’Hurricane Highway’

Fri May 15, 2009 - Southeast Edition

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Government experts testifying in a historic lawsuit over hurricane flooding on May 7 challenged the notion that a navigation channel became a catastrophic “hurricane highway’’ that funneled Katrina’s storm surge into New Orleans in 2005.

The Army Corps of Engineers, the defendant in the lawsuit, drew a dramatically different picture of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet’s effect on Katrina’s surge and waves from the one presented by plaintiffs’ experts during the first two weeks of the trial at federal court in New Orleans.

Much is at stake. The plaintiffs encompass five individuals and one business. Each claimant is seeking between $300,000 and $400,000 in damages. If these plaintiffs are victorious, more than 120,000 other individuals, businesses and government entities could have a better shot at claiming billions of dollars in damages.

Reed Mosher, a geotechnical engineer at the Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Miss., said the channel, known as the “Mister Go,’’ did not cause levee breaching during Katrina.

“The MRGO didn’t cause the breaching or the failures,’’ Mosher said. “It was such a storm that it overwhelmed that system.’’

Mosher was the fourth expert brought by the corps who said the MRGO was not the primary cause of the wipeout flooding of St. Bernard Parish, the Lower 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans. The lawsuit, the signature suit against the corps over Katrina flooding, charges that the corps’ failure to maintain the 76-mi. shipping route turned it into a “hurricane highway.’’

Work on the channel began in the late 1950s, but scientists say its construction allowed swamp-destroying salt water to creep inland, destroying thousands of acres of wetlands. The plaintiffs contend losing those wetlands — which serve as natural buffers against flooding — made Katrina’s storm surge deadly.

The government has argued the flooding would have occurred anyway because the levees were not designed to withstand such massive storm surge. The corps has argued that the water poured over the levees at a rate 10 times faster than what any high-quality, grass-covered clay levee could withstand. And officials have said the wetland destruction did not worsen the flooding.

Throughout the week, government experts and plaintiffs’ lawyers argued over the finer points of mathematical, hydraulic and engineering analyses of what happened to make levees and floodwalls fail.

Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, killing more than 1,500 people.

The trial entered its third week May 11, and it was expected to take up much of week of May 18. There is no jury, leaving a final decision to U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr.

The judge has not hesitated to disapprove of the corps. On May 7, for instance, he made a caustic remark about the agency when Mosher said the corps used mud from digging the MRGO to build levees because that was cheap and effective.

“I’m sure it was cost effective until Katrina,’’ Duval said wryly. “Cost effective is the bane of our existence in New Orleans.’’

Mud from the channel was of poor quality because it contained sand and silt.

On May 6, Bruce Ebersole, a hydraulic engineer with the Army Engineer Research and Development Center, said that even if Katrina had struck before the channel was dug in the 1950s it would have caused similar flooding.

Ebersole said the vegetation that existed before the channel was created would have had a “very slight’’ effect on storm surge.

The Corps of Engineers also has argued that Congress did not give it the funds it needed to make the levees stronger.

Despite its statements in court, the corps has acknowledged the area’s flood risk. Crews are closing the channel with rocks and building a $1.3 billion floodgate.

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