Law in Contemporary Society

Life After the Storm

-- By WilliamKing - 14 May 2009


When Hurricane Katrina hit the southern coast of the United States she made her presence known.

  • Why is this a good first sentence? It doesn't really say anything. The next sentence has the information in it. Why throw away the very first chance you have to make an impression on the reader's mind?

An estimated 1,800 American lives were taken, alongside over $81 billion dollars worth of property damage. Within the wide variety of statistics that testify to Katrina’s power and destruction, one reigns supreme: New Orleans, 80% flooded. Unlike other Gulf Coast landscapes that have recovered over the four years since the devastation, growth in the shattered ground-zero of New Orleans continues to be slow. The city’s citizens, the poorest being the most affected and displaced by the storm, remain in need of help and justice.

The recently announced resignation of Edward J. Blakely, director of the New Orleans recovery effort, is an indication that progress has been subpar. But Blakely does not stand alone. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Mayor's office, the Louisiana state government, as well as the Bush administration share part of the blame for inadequacies in the rebuilding process. I mention these blameworthy individuals not as the focus of this essay, but rather to pinpoint that there are social and political phenomena that are directly impeding an efficient recovery for the city of New Orleans. Fortunately, even in the face of a faltered effort to rebuild, some residents are turning to the legal system in search of compensation. There is hope that their efforts will succeed, but there is also legitimate room for doubt.

Current Litigation

Last month, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana began hearing claims filed by six New Orleans residents against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the federal agency associated with dams, canals and flood protection in the United States). To date, the majority of post-Katrina lawsuits have been dismissed because the Flood Control Act of 1928 bans claims against the United States government for damage caused by floodwaters. Unlike these previous suits which focused on defective levees, the current litigation addresses the poorly built navigation channel adjacent to New Orleans. Referring to the channel as a “hurricane highway”, the plaintiffs argue that the Corps’ negligent maintenance led to the destruction of their homes and businesses.

Some media outlets have acknowledged the civil suit as “pivotal”. Many are hoping that a victory can lead to a class action merging the 400,000 claims that have been filed to date. The Army has even projected that the government could potentially loose up to $100 billion in litigation expenses and settlements. If successful, there is no doubt that the pending litigation will influence other post-Katrina lawsuits. But the advancement of a class action, based solely on this unique litigation, seems a bit out of scope. The current suit is brought by five individuals and one business. Each claimant is seeking between $300,000 and $400,000 in damages. Victory for these owners will bring forth compensation, but not the type of compensation that a displaced family living in the projects of the Ninth Ward is likely to see.

The idea that a ruling against the Army Corps will bring justice to a majority of the New Orleans demographic is built upon assumptions, not fact. These assumptions may materialize into truth, yet thousands of other claims have all ready been dismissed. The hope for a class action is confronted by the need to efficiently build a plaintiffs’ class, and in case of a settlement, to allocate damages adequately. A victory in the current litigation will advance a new argument of causation for hurricane victims. However, this does not guarantee future victories. It is only a small step in an increasingly overdue search for justice.

Problems Persist

As journalists theorize about the potential of future hurricane litigation, the residents of New Orleans are confronted with a daily battle for aid. Even amidst hope that they will one day be compensated for their economic and emotional losses, the effects of Katrina’s destruction continue to be felt.

On May 1, 2009, the temporary housing program for victims of Hurricane Katrina was terminated. The program provided temporary housing units to more than 143,000 families across the Gulf Coast. Federal law limits the statute of limitations for temporary disaster assistance to 18 months, unless there are extraordinary circumstances. In consideration of Katrina’s catastrophic devastation, FEMA extended this limit to 44 months. The decision has now been made to discontinue the program. Even though thousands of victims have only just received rebuilding money in the last six months, their only place of residence, since Katrina destroyed their homes, will soon be taken again.

The problems associated with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are not limited to property damage and social indignation. There are thousands of children, mostly black, who experienced nothing but trauma from the day the storm hit. A recent New York Times article highlights the psychological problems that young Katrina victims are cooping with. These problems consist of more than anger. The depression felt by these children is paramount and their innocence is lost. Video footage from HBO’s award-winning documentary When the Levees Broke offers a glimpse into their lives. Some of the documentary’s darkest clips include children clinging to debris, sleeping on the New Orleans highway, and crying out of hunger. In one scene, five children stand sheepishly alone on their front porch, water has already surpassed their doorway, their mother lay motionless in her bedroom. For these children justice is not as much about who to blame, as it is what help will be made available for them.


The New Orleans rebuilding effort, while showing some progress, has lacked both leadership and focus. In the wake of this failure, the victims remain victims. Current litigation offers some hope for widespread economic compensation, but it will be years until this promise may be obtained. The residents of New Orleans are therefore left to cope with Katrina’s aftermath on a day by day basis. They are America’s lottery losers, both underprivileged and overlooked. Justice for them is seas away.

  • And this Administration, which has spent tens of billions of federal dollars on automobile companies, and more than a trillion dollars reviving dead banks, has done no better than the last one at recognizing the drowning of New Orleans and the emiseration of her children as a national priority and a national responsibility. I'm not sure Spike Lee is going to be as eloquent in his anger about that now. As you point out, however, the national crime that is our indifference to the national disaster that is the destruction of our people and their city is still one we are committing every day. I don't understand your apparent relative enthusiasm for tort litigation against the federal government. It's not a game anybody could expect to win, let alone for the stake involved, which is all the money to rebuild the city and its peoples' lives that the government is obviously unwilling to spend. Suppose you had judgment. How would you collect from a regime that is plainly not going to pay? You needed to take space to explain how this problem can be reduced to legality, when the politics are plainly where the impossibility comes from. Do you think that a national legislature and executive that have all agreed to forget about New Orleans are going to slap their foreheads and put $100 billion on the street in response to an order from a single federal district judge, in all likelihood the slightly shop-soiled patronage appointee of a Senator who likes to play with whores wearing diapers? Or that Obama has any plans to give Bobby Jindal $100 billion to build his humble self up with anytime this century?

  • The people of New Orleans are our fellow citizens, and you are right that by the basic principles of any civilization worthy of the name, they deserve not only justice but decency and care. They will be relentlessly sacrificed without so much as a thought by the system that calls itself capitalism and democracy. If that's not enough to make you wonder what such shining words are ever worth, you have a much stronger stomach for bullshit than I do.


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r7 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:44:12 - IanSullivan
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