Lawsuits seek damages from federal government

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NEW ORLEANS -- Dozens of lawsuits seeking damages from the federal government for Hurricane Katrina-related levee failures and flooding in the New Orleans area are over.

U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. has dismissed the cases. The move comes more than a year after a federal appeals court overturned his ruling that held the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers liable for flooding caused by lax maintenance of a shipping channel.

Duval has also dismissed a parallel lawsuit against a contractor. It claimed excavation work weakened flood walls in New Orleans' Industrial Canal. Duval entered the orders to dismiss the cases on Dec. 20.

More than 500,000 residents, businesses and governments filed claims against the Corps. People in southern Louisiana have long taken for granted that the flooding in the wake of the 2005 storm was a man-made disaster -- one caused specifically by the corps -- and they have wanted the agency to pay up for lost homes and property.

The corps claimed immunity from suits related to decisions on flood-control projects, including most levees, based on a 1928 federal law. But lawyers tried to get around that by claiming the agency had been negligent in maintaining navigation channels, including the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.

That channel, dug in the 1960s and closed after the hurricane, funneled Katrina's storm surge into parts of the city. Overall, thousands of homes were destroyed, about 1,400 people died in the flood and much of the city was left under water.

Kerry will go to Middle East: Secretary of State John Kerry will head to the Middle East this week to continue talks on an elusive Mideast peace deal just as Israel is poised to announce plans to build more Jewish settlements -- a move expected to anger the Palestinians. Kerry is scheduled to leave on New Year's Day for Israel and the Palestinian territories where he will discuss ongoing negotiations with leaders from both sides, the State Department said in a statement Saturday. The parties relaunched direct talks last summer with the goal of forging an accord within nine months. The target date expires at the end of April, and while that is not considered a deadline to end talks, there has been little, if any, tangible sign of progress so far. The U.S. routinely insists progress is being made, but has declined to disclose details about the talks.

Capitol dome to be renovated: A world-famous symbol of democracy is going under cover, as workers start a two-year, $60 million renovation of the U.S. Capitol dome. Curved rows of scaffolds, like Saturn's rings, will encircle it next spring, enabling contractors to strip multiple layers of paint and repair more than 1,000 cracks and broken pieces. The dome will remain illuminated at night and partly visible through the scaffolding and paint-capturing cloths. But the Washington icon -- and portions of the Rotunda's painted ceiling that lies below -- will be significantly obscured for many months. The project is beginning just as the nearby Washington Monument sheds scaffolding that was used to repair damage from a 2011 earthquake.

Military sexual assault figures increase: The number of reported sexual assaults across the military shot up by more than 50 percent this year, an increase that defense officials say may suggest that victims are becoming more willing to come forward after a tumultuous year of scandals that shined a spotlight on the crimes and put pressure on the military to take aggressive action. A string of high-profile assaults and arrests triggered outrage in Congress and set off months of debate over how to change the military justice system, while military leaders launched a series of new programs intended to beef up accountability and encourage victims to come forward. According to early data obtained by Associated Press, there were more than 5,000 reports of sexual assault filed during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, compared to the 3,374 in 2012. Of those 2013 reports, about 10 percent involved incidents that occurred before the victim got into the military, up from just 4 percent only a year ago.

Congress united on flood control: Those occasionally infamous multimillion-dollar water projects that have been derided by good-government types over the years as Exhibit A of pork-barrel spending in Congress are making a comeback. The reason: Apparently, this is one of the few areas where members of both party see eye to eye. Republicans and Democrats who found little common ground in 2013 are rallying around a bill they hope to pass early next year authorizing up to $12.5 billion over the next decade for flood diversion in North Dakota, widening a Texas-Louisiana waterway, deepening Georgia's rapidly growing Port of Savannah and other projects. That's the Senate bill's total. The House version would cost about $8.2 billion. Negotiators are confident they can merge the two and pass the package for President Barack Obama's signature early in 2014.

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