Alvin Livers lost his dream home when busted floodwalls unleashed a torrent of water that inundated his New Orleans neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina. Seven years later, Livers is one of several homeowners seeking to hold the Army Corps of Engineers and a contractor liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in flood damage.
Livers, the first witness at a federal trial for a lawsuit against the corps and Washington Group International Inc., testified that he and his wife lost everything when flood waters inundated their home in the city’s Lower 9th Ward. He cried when he saw the house for the first time several weeks after the 2005 storm.
“I always had the American dream of owning my own property,” the 70-year-old retired shipyard worker said, recalling how it took him 30 years of hard work to pay for the home. “When I really seen my house, the whole dream I had looked like it went up in smoke.”
Livers and another plaintiff, Fred Holmes, lent an emotional tone to a trial that will hinge on highly technical, scientific testimony about the failure of floodwalls along the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal, commonly known to locals as the Industrial Canal.
Holmes, who lived in St. Bernard Parish when the storm hit, wept as he recalled the pride he felt when he and his wife purchased their first home and the pain they endured when Katrina’s flood waters demolished it.
“It was devastating. We didn’t know what the future would hold,” he said. “We lost everything.”
U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr., who will decide the case without a jury, will hear dueling theories about what caused the failures before he rules on whether the corps and WGI acted negligently.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that excavation work by the corps and WGI weakened the floodwalls, allowing subterranean water pressures from Katrina’s storm surge to pass through holes and a layer of clay with enough force to breach the floodwalls in two places. The corps claims water from Katrina’s rain and surge overtopped and overwhelmed the floodwalls.
Duval also presided over an earlier trial for separate but related claims and ruled in favor of those plaintiffs in 2009, concluding that the corps’ shoddy work on a shipping channel left the same areas vulnerable to flooding.
In March, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Duval’s landmark ruling that the federal government isn’t immune from lawsuits blaming Katrina’s flood damage on the corps’ operation and maintenance of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet navigation channel.
The trial opening Wednesday focuses on a lock replacement project that began in 1999. The corps hired WGI to perform excavation and backfilling work near the canal floodwalls.
Chad Morris, a land surveyor and expert witness for the plaintiffs, testified Wednesday that hundreds of hundreds of deep pilings were removed near the floodwalls. He concluded the pilings were poorly backfilled or not backfilled at all.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys argue the corps and WGI should have known the work could jeopardize the floodwalls’ stability but failed to properly evaluate and protect against their failure.
The corps denies WGI’s work was at fault and, instead, claims Katrina’s overwhelming surge overtopped the floodwalls and caused the breaches.
Duval previously ruled that the corps isn’t liable for damage from the failure of a flood-control structure like a levee or floodwall. The plaintiffs say the lock replacement project doesn’t qualify for that protection.
WGI defends its work and says the corps was solely responsible for ensuring that the excavation and backfilling wouldn’t jeopardize stability of the floodwalls.
Only a handful of homeowners are named as plaintiffs in the suit, but the case could be expanded to a class-action if Duval sides with the plaintiffs.
The trial is expected to last about a month.