NEW ORLEANS — With a $77-billion claim, the city of New Orleans led tens of thousands of homeowners and businesses seeking compensation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for losses suffered when levees protecting the city ruptured under the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina.
Kathleen Gibbs, a spokeswoman in the corps' New Orleans district office, said that by Monday at least 34,500 claims had arrived by mail. And the bags and boxes filled with forms from residents who rushed to file before the Thursday midnight deadline could fill an 8-by-10-foot room.
"This is obviously a very significant and very emotional situation for many people," Gibbs said.
Many claimants argue that their properties survived the actual hurricane, but were flooded when the city's flood walls failed because of shoddy construction and corps negligence.
Lawyers said the number of claims could top 100,000. Forms were accepted at corps offices nationwide.
"It is important and necessary for people to let the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress know that they expect to receive compensation," said Joseph Bruno, a New Orleans lawyer who is leading a team of attorneys for hurricane victims. "The debate is simple: You broke it, you fix it."
Claims have run from thousands of dollars to the $77 billion that the city is pursuing.
New Orleans officials did not specify the damages to be covered, but in a statement, City Atty. Penya Moses-Fields said the claim was "prudent at this stage to file."
Entergy New Orleans, the city's electrical utility that went bankrupt after Katrina, is seeking $655 million in damages and losses, and New Orleans Sewerage and Water is trying to recoup about $460 million.
The corps has argued that the 1928 Flood Control Act gives it immunity from lawsuits. But last month, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that such protection is void in cases concerning navigational projects.
The claimants contend that the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet and the 17th Street drainage canal, which caused much of the flooding, are navigation waterways.
Veda Manuel -- whose home, along with her bicycle- and kayak-tour business in the city's Bayou St. John neighborhood, was destroyed by Katrina -- said no amount of money could undo the trauma she and other residents have endured.
"The amount of chaos, uncertainty and disturbance ... money will never compensate for that. But they must claim responsibility," said Manuel, 50, who is renovating her home using savings and help from friends. She would not disclose the size of her claim.
"Time stopped for us" the moment the levees broke, Manuel said. "I lost an entire year of my life."