Often the true account of a major disaster cannot be told until years have passed. Rather than dim the memory, time often refreshes the search for the truth—and the listeners’ willingness to reject convenient “real-time” explanations and elisions.
That was true of the lies eventually exposed about the government’s response to 9/11, and it happened again last month, in a 156-page opinion (plus another 33 pages of exhibits), by a federal district judge in the Eastern District of Louisiana. The court ruled that the flooding of St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward was caused not by an act of God, but by the failures of the U.S. government. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not maintain and properly manage the channels and levees in several key respects.
The ruling came after six plaintiffs brought claims against the Corps for property damage caused by the flooding. The plaintiffs’ claim constitute a mere drop in the bucket, if viewed only through the lens of dollars and sense (and the millions in actual property damage).
But the court’s opinion offers something much more than money. As Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. found in his detailed and devastating opinion: the Corps “not only knew, but admitted by 1988, that the MRGO [Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet] threatened human life.” Rather than take steps to protect the residents of New Orleans from this threat, the Corps “simply chose to ignore the effects of the channel,” focusing only on “keep[ing] the channel open regardless of its effects on the environment and the surrounding communities.” Noting also the Corps’ failure to inform Congress of the potential for catastrophe, Judge Duval described the Corps’ conduct as “monumental negligence.”
The devastating weight of Judge Duval’s decision should not be measured by the pittance in damages the U.S. must pay to the four plaintiffs in the suit. (They will get less than $800,000 in total for damaged homes and buildings, and living expenses). Instead Judge Duval’s decision should—and must—transform the narrative about what really happened during that tragic week in 2005.
The decision validates the relentless pursuit of truth by New Orleans inhabitants and their determined lawyers. And it confirms what so many knew and insisted from the very start: That thousands need not have lost their lives and their homes that week. That when government agencies stray from their core mission of protecting the people—whether in the financial industry or in environmental regulation—it is a particular and pernicious form of negligence that wreaks devastating consequences in the lives of average people.
That as Judge Duval stated, the decision of the Corps to focus for decades “solely on the maritime clients it serviced so well,” rather than the safety of those who lived near those levees reflects a recurring reality of government in the service of business rather than in service of people. That blaming average New Orleanians, because they’re poor, or black, or because “they should have left” is as cowardlly as blaming those who sought a piece of the American Dream and trusted mortgage brokers who thought of them as “mud people,” and purchased homes in a hyper-inflated market on terms that were the stuff of fairy tales. Judge Duval’s decision reflects the awful truth that catastrophic “acts of God” are often assisted by the negligence or cruel indifference of human beings.
It’s unclear at this point how the Obama administration will respond to Judge Duval’s decision—whether his ruling will even survive on appeal to the federal court of appeals. But the fact that at least one federal district judge found after a 19-day trial that “a catastrophic loss of human life and property in unprecedented proportions” was caused by the “lassitude and failure . . .[of a government agency] to fulfill its duties” will stand as an important moment in the account of this decade’s history. It may well encourage those seeking answers in the devastation wrought by the current financial crisis to trust that with persistence and determination and the passage of time, the truth will be told.
Sherrilyn Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.