Reporting from Los Angeles and New Orleans — The harshly worded legal ruling that held the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers responsible for much of the flooding during Hurricane Katrina could have a far-reaching effect on national flood-control policies and on the federal government's long-standing refusal to take responsibility for its errors.
U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. issued the stinging rebuke to the corps late Wednesday for its failure to properly manage a navigation channel and levees, which he ruled were directly responsible for much of the flooding that devastated New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish.
Although only a handful of homeowners shared in about $700,000 in damages, city officials said the principles established in the ruling would open the door to more than 100,000 claims by residents and businesses pending against the government in the areas covered by the ruling.
But more than just deciding this lawsuit, the power and depth of Duval's 156-page opinion could influence the design of levees that protect communities against rivers and shorelines in almost every state.
"The American public frequently believes they are protected by these piles of dirt that we call levees, when they are not," said Robert Bea, a UC Berkeley civil engineering professor who testified during three days of the trial. "I hope this ruling would serve as a wake-up call."
The ruling also is a major blow to the corps' reputation, though that was already tarnished by its own admissions of engineering errors in the New Orleans levee system.
"The Corps' lassitude and failure to fulfill its duties resulted in a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions," Duval wrote.
Tulane University law professor Oliver Houck called the ruling "the biggest blot on the corps in its history. You can't imagine the amount of power and pride that the corps exercised here in New Orleans. And there is a huge institutional interest in the corps deflecting the blame."
Indeed, the corps' New Orleans district office quickly signaled that it might dispute the ruling.
"Until such time as the litigation is completed, including the appellate process up to and through the U.S. Supreme Court, no activity is expected to be taken on any of these claims," spokesman Ken Holder said.
But the ruling was still evoking euphoria among some residents, particularly Tanya Smith, who won $317,000.
During Katrina in 2005, a massive ocean surge blew up the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, the navigation channel known as MRGO. The water destroyed weakly constructed levees, crossed a marsh and then crashed into Smith's suburban brick home in Chalmette.
Smith, a 36-year-old nurse who had evacuated with her two sons, lost virtually everything in her home and spent more than two years in an apartment while she rebuilt.
"It was a modest home, but it was mine," said Smith, whose aunt drowned in a flooded nursing home. "I knew we had a good case, but you never believe you are going to win against the Corps of Engineers."
Attorneys who brought the suit moved quickly to broadly expand the ruling in New Orleans. Pierce O'Donnell, a Los Angeles attorney who led the case, said it now establishes the corps' liability for 100,000 home and business owners in the areas covered by the ruling. But thousands of others who lost their homes in flooding not caused by MRGO are not covered by the ruling.
"Our aim is to leave no Katrina victims behind," O'Donnell said.
In the Lower 9th Ward -- now part prairie land, part enduring disaster zone, with pockets of recovery -- some residents simply shook their heads, or began reciting their long personal tales of disappointment, insinuating, it seemed, that this glimmer of hope was just one more for the list: the government loan they never got, or the aid that did come, but too late.
"I just gave up on it," said William Johnson, explaining his lack of enthusiasm for the lawsuit as he stood across from his knocked-around shotgun house. "They said the money was on the table, but they ain't sent me nothing."
Louis Banks, 33, a self-employed landscaper, heard the news on TV Wednesday night in the apartment he's been renting across the river since the flood.
"My reaction was that maybe this could be something wonderful for us," he said.
Banks, whose home in the Lower 9th Ward was destroyed in the flood, said he received about $60,000 in federal rebuilding grants about three months ago -- but it wasn't enough to fully rebuild.
Meanwhile, Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) was using the ruling to push for improved coastal protection along Louisiana's long shoreline, and met with Obama administration officials Thursday. She wants an interagency group to coordinate efforts to restore and protect the coast, replacing some of the corps' role in the area.