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Corps faces flood of claims

Federal officials, still dealing with the devastation and storm waters unleashed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, now are facing a new flood, this one of tens of thousands of damage claims -- some in the billions of dollars -- by businesses, government and individuals.

BY P.J. HELLER | NEW ORLEANS, La. | March 6, 2007

Federal officials, still dealing with the devastation and storm waters unleashed by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, now are facing a new flood, this one of tens of thousands of damage claims -- some in the billions of dollars -- by businesses, government and individuals.

No figures were available on exactly how many claims had been submitted against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the March 1 filing deadline, but the total was likely to exceed the 60,000 estimated by the corps. Lawyers involved in lawsuits against the agency said they expected upwards of 100,000 claims to be filed.

Three days before the deadline, the corps said it had received more than 36,000 claims and "the mail room is still very full," a spokesman said, emphasizing the words "very full."

The number of claims received "will fill an 8-by-10-foot room floor to ceiling," the spokesman said Tuesday. "That's about the best I can give you for now."

As the deadline loomed, residents raced to queue up outside the corps office in New Orleans. The agency subsequently opened its offices nationwide to accept claims on the day of the deadline.

Among the claims was one for a whopping $77 billion in damages filed by the city of New Orleans, another for $655 million by Entergy New Orleans, the city's bankrupt electrical utility, and one seeking $460 million by the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board.

Congress has approved $110 billion in relief aid for the Gulf Coast, of which $53 billion has already been spent. Louisiana has been allocated $6.3 billion in recovery funds, with $1.65 billion of that going to New Orleans, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said.

The claims, which are required as the first step before any lawsuit can be filed against the corps, seek compensation for losses when the levees protecting the city gave way during Katrina. The claims contend that the flooding was the result of poor design and engineering by the corps on the levees and waterways.

The corps has six months to accept, settle or reject the claims, after which claimants can file lawsuits against the federal government.

"Once the claim is received, this agency will have six months from the date of receipt in order to investigate and adjudicate your claim," the corps said. "It is possible that, if warranted, an administrative settlement could be negotiated with you. It is also possible that the claim could be denied. During the six months from the date of receipt of your written claim by the agency, you cannot file a lawsuit against the United States of America."

The corps had argued it was immune from lawsuits under the1928 Flood Control Act, but U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval ruled Feb. 2 that the agency had no such protection when it comes to its navigation projects.

Duval's ruling came in a lawsuit against the corps by residents who claimed the corps was negligent in building and maintaining the Mississippi River-Go Outlet (MRGO), a navigation channel that was blamed for much of the flooding in eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish.

The ruling could also clear the way for another lawsuit to proceed, this one claiming that flooding from Katrina throughout the rest of the city was due to the corps allowing dredging of the 17th Street Canal.

The deadline for filing claims came on the same day that President Bush visited the stricken region, his first visit in six months. He said he came back to New Orleans to let people know "that the federal government still knows you exist, still knows you have issues, and wants to work with your leadership to address those issues."


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