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Justice for Katrina Victims: Five Years Passed and Still Waiting

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Now that the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has passed and the dignitaries have left New Orleans, it's a good time to once again share an important fact:

A Department of Defense investigation and a federal court decision have concluded that this epic tragedy was a man-made disaster caused by the gross negligence of the U.S. Army Corps in the design, construction and maintenance of the failed federal levee system and an interstate waterway known as the MR-GO. The consequences: 1,400 people dead, a half-million residents displaced and more than $100 billion of property destroyed.

Yet, the federal government still has not paid a penny in compensation to the hundreds of thousands of victims.

This callous neglect didn't need to happen. History demonstrates that the federal government can work wonders in periods as short as five years.

The massive Hoover Dam was constructed between 1931 and 1936.

After World War II, the United States invested much of the $29.3 billion for reconstruction of Germany and $15.2 billion for Japan between 1946 and 1951, creating out of rubble two of the world's great economies.

The devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake led to the largest relief effort in American history. Much of that beautiful city was rebuilt within five years.

In the past, when the United States was responsible for a mass disaster, the Government acted swiftly to aid victims without requiring them to hire lawyers and litigate for years. In the Teton Dam Disaster in 1976 and the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, the President and Congress established a victims' compensation fund for expeditious administrative processing of claims within a few years.
Indeed, after 9/11, it took Special Master Kenneth Feinberg only 33 months to establish eligibility rules, assess claims and make awards totaling more than $7 billion to the survivors of the 2,880 persons killed in the terrorist attacks and to another 2,680 individuals injured.

Katrina victims have not been treated so compassionately. In my own experience, the Department of Justice in both the Bush and Obama Administrations has preferred five years of hard-nosed litigation to negotiation of an honorable settlement.

Even after U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood R. Duval, Jr. last November handed down his 156-page landmark decision (Robinson v. United States) finding the Army Corps guilty of "monumental negligence" in flooding the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, government lawyers have vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court, prolonging for several more years the payment of just compensation to Katrina victims.

Despite some commendable progress in restoration, large swaths of the region resemble a third-world country. More than 57,000 homes remain vacant or abandoned. In the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, half the housing destroyed by the flooding has not been rebuilt. St. Bernard Parish is still without a hospital, and New Orleans has reopened only 12 of the 23 hospitals in operation before Katrina.

Sadly, New Orleans has become the city where the promises of our Presidents go to die.

Immediately after the deluge, President Bush solemnly pledged that his Administration would "do what it takes" to rebuild the region. After his election, President Obama chided his predecessor, committing that he "will keep the broken promises to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast." Tragically, both have fallen short of assuring that federal assistance reached the most vulnerable victims - the poor, the elderly, the children.

The most urgent need is to fairly compensate homeowners so they can rebuild their neighborhoods. While the Louisiana Road Home Program awarded $8.6 billion in grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to rebuild 130,000 hurricane-ravaged homes, 81% of New Orleans homeowners were left with insufficient funds to rebuild. Homeowners on average received $35,000 to $50,000 short of the funds needed to restore their dwellings.

In a New Orleans town hall meeting last October, the President, in the face of skeptical residents who were tired of rhetoric, commented: "I wish I could just write a check."

Well, he can. He should pay Katrina victims out of the Judgment Fund--a permanent, unlimited appropriation for paying settlements that do not require Congressional approval. Then, the President will have gone a long way toward redeeming his repeated promise that "we will not forget about New Orleans . . . . we will rebuild this region and rebuild it stronger than before."

Pierce O'Donnell is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who served as lead trial counsel in Robinson v. United States. The decision can be found at www.katrinadocs.com.