Aaron Broussard, during his emotional breakdown on Meet The Press, September 4, 2005
Two trials are underway here in New Orleans that have folks re-living the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, which struck the city on August 29, 2005. In state court, 24th Judicial District Judge John Peytavin presides over a civil class-action lawsuit against the Parish of Jefferson. The plaintiffs charge that the Parish (which is just to the west of the city of New Orleans) implemented an unnecessary “doomsday plan” prior to Katrina's landfall that left the residents defenseless from street flooding and caused billions of dollars in damage. In Federal court downtown, another jury hears testimony in the corruption trial of former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who is accused of using the storm's aftermath for personal gain, at the expense of residents. Both trials bring back a flood of memories, anger, and post-traumatic stress among locals.
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FULL DISCLOSURE: We personally were victims of flooding in Jefferson Parish during Hurricane Katrina. Since the damage our house received was fully insured by government-subsidised flood insurance, the outcome of the trial does not impact us.
As hurricane-watchers, analysts, and forecasters watch Katrina strengthen in the Gulf of Mexico that last week of August, 2005, there was serious concern for the city of New Orleans. The storm was forecast to be a “Category 5” on the Saffir-Simpson scale. It was supposed to be bad. Emergency planners from Lafayette to Tampa were working overtime, fearful that the storm would turn, sparing New Orleans, cursing them. The Cat-5 predictions led then-Parish President Aaron Broussard to believe this was indeed the “doomsday” scenario:
The doomsday plan, which no longer exists, triggered evacuations of activated parish employees when a hurricane of Category 4 strength or stronger was forecast to strike the region. The plaintiffs' attorneys argue the doomsday plan was activated before such a forecast was given.
One of the biggest issues the plaintiffs have with the doomsday plan, as written, was that it had parish employees evacuating north rather than west. After the storm passed, a number of bridges and roads north of New Orleans were damaged and/or impassable, making it impossible for essential personnel to return to the parish. Meteorolgist Nash Roberts, III (son of the legendary TV weatherman), testified that this was poor planning:
Questioned by Martin, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Roberts told the jury that evacuating west during Katrina was the safest course of action. The testimony was seen as a swipe at the doomsday's plan to send parish workers to the north, to Mount Hermon in Washington Parish. "Go west," Roberts testified.
So, Broussard declares doomsday, and parish employees evacuate north. After the storm passed, they couldn't get back. Among the employees stuck in Mount Hermon were the operaters of the pumping stations that pumped water out of the landfall/drainage canals that crisscross the east bank of Jefferson Parish, depositing that water into Lake Pontchartrain. On a typical rainy day, water in the streets will flow into “catch basins” in the street, then the drainage system will carry it to the canals. The pumps then lower the water levels in the canals. The entire system underwent major upgrades in the “May Flood” of 1995, and street flooding had not been a major problem in the ten years between that flood and Katrina. With nobody to turn the pumps on, however, the water in the streets didn't have any place to go, once the canals filled up. Experts, like Barry Arden Benedict of the University of Texas, believe the pumps played a significant factor in the flood damage:
Benedict is a member of the mechanical engineering faculty at the University of Texas at El Paso. While he did no analysis of his own, he endorsed a study commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and done by a group of experts called the Interagency Evaluation Performance Taskforce. "I did my independent review of that they did," he testified under questioning by a parish attorney, Celeste Brustowicz. The task force concluded that the geographic area of Jefferson Parish that flooded during Katrina could have been reduced by 73 percent had the drainage pumps operated during the storm, Benedict testified. The depth of floodwater could have reduced "in the order of a foot or a little less, to in some instances as much as seven feet," he testified in response to questions asked by plaintiffs' attorney Glenn Cater.
We got a foot of water in our house in Metairie, because the outfall canals backed up, and the water in the street came in through the front door and the windows. That one foot of water went into the house, and the sheetrock walls soaked it in. Because of the heat (post-K temperatures in the metro area were above 90 degrees for over a week), one foot of water turned into three feet of mold on the walls. That meant we had to rip out the floors of the house and cut out the walls up to four feet, the size of a standard section of drywall. The total bill for the damage that one foot of water caused in our house was over $140K. Jefferson Parish is outside of the “soup bowl” that is the city of New Orleans. The ground is higher than the center of the city, and the levee protection was considered to be solid. Unlike the damage inflicted by flooding in the city, the water that drowned suburban homes came up from the catch basins. It didn't roll through the streets because of a floodwall breach. Plaintiffs claim in the lawsuit that, had Broussard not ordered the pump operators evacuated, they could have turned on the pumps, saving all those homes. (On a side note, all the pumping stations in the parish now have “safe houses” attached to the station buildings. In the event of a hurricane, the operators can hunker down in those shelters until the storm passes.) The plaintiffs rested their case yesterday, and Judge Peytavin denied defendants' motions for directed verdicts. The case will likely go to the jury once the defense presents its case.
While this trial unfolds in the 'burbs, the city's most-recent former mayor is on trial on corruption charges that include business deuntitled diaryalings he and his family had during the city's reconstruction period. The charges against Nagin are more extensive than just storm-profiteering, including corruption schemes that began long before the storm hit the city. Many are surprised that Nagin did not seek a change of venue, particularly since he was so unpopular when he left office in 2010. Since his trial is in Federal court, the jury pool is from the thirteen parishes of Louisana's Eastern District. He's taking the chance that folks outside of Orleans Parish won't hold him personally responsible for their plight in the wake of the storm, and take it out on him. Both trials are on hold for a couple of days, since freezing temperatures and the threat of snow here (yes, snow in New Orleans!) caused both judges to suspend proceedings until Thursday.