This week marks the sixth anniversary of the destruction of the nation's 35th largest city from cataclysmic flooding during Hurricane Katrina caused by the catastrophic failure of the federal levees constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Who can forget the gut-wrenching images of desperate families on rooftops pleading for help, bedazzled children clenching their anxious mothers' hands in the sweltering Superdome, homes bulldozed off their foundations by raging torrents, and bloated corpses floating in the putrid water?
Apparently, the Obama Administration has forgotten.
Six years after the worst man-made disaster in American history, vast areas of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish remain in ruins. With half of the 300,000 flooded homes still unoccupied and some people still residing in FEMA trailers, dozens of square miles of once-thriving neighborhoods resemble third-world countries.
The federal government's studied indifference to Katrina victims would be a national shame even if it had no culpability. It is all the more disgraceful since the epic levee failure -- costing 1,400 lives and $100 billion in property damage -- was its fault. In his landmark 2009 decision in Robinson v. United States, U.S. District Court Judge Stanwood R. Duval, Jr. found the Army Corps guilty of "monumental" and "gross" negligence.
Yet not a penny of compensation has been paid to several hundred thousand victims of the government's proven wrongdoing. Instead, Katrina victims have been forced to endure nearly six years of contentious and expensive litigation. And when they prevailed, did their government reach a fair settlement?
No, the Obama Justice Department has appealed, vowing to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. A final decision will not likely be rendered until after Katrina's eighth anniversary. Even if citizens ultimately prevail, their legal victory may be Pyrrhic as homeowners abandon any lingering hope of rebuilding in blighted neighborhoods.
Candidate Obama rebuked President Bush for his failure to redeem his promise to "do what it takes" to rebuild Greater New Orleans. Even as recently as Katrina's fifth anniversary, President Obama solemnly renewed his campaign pledge to leave no Katrina victim behind. "My administration is going to stand with you -- and fight alongside you -- until the job is done."
In truth, the president's administration is fighting against Katrina victims, opting for litigation over conciliation. Sadly, there is no discernible difference between the Bush and Obama Justice Department when it comes to scorched-earth litigation tactics against Katrina victims.
Historically, when the government caused mass disasters, it immediately took responsibility and swiftly passed legislation establishing an out-of-court settlement process for prompt, equitable compensation. This humanitarian approach for thousands of victims awarded hundreds of millions of dollars was pursued by Republican President Ford with the 1976 Teton Dam Disaster in Idaho and Democratic President Clinton with the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire in New Mexico.
Why the starkly disparate treatment of Katrina victims when the federal government is indisputably responsible for the Katrina tragedy?
Why is President Obama allowing his lawyers to assert technical legal immunities that Presidents Ford and Clinton chose to waive?
Why has the Obama Justice Department refused to settle with Katrina victims -- who are predominantly low- and middle-income and African-American -- when last year it negotiated two high-profile class action settlements for more than $4.55 billion payable to tens of thousands of Indian Trust Fund beneficiaries and black farmers?
Million of Americans like me voted for President Obama because we yearned for a president who refused to accept that our great nation was too big to care for the less fortunate in our midst. It is not too late for President Obama. Settling now with these forgotten victims will spark housing reconstruction, allow tens of thousands of displaced families to reoccupy their homes, and stimulate the local economy by creating jobs and new tax revenues. Nearly two years ago, President Obama told a New Orleans town hall gathering: "I wish I could just write a check."
Yes, he can.
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.
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