Katrina Canal Breeches Consolidated Litigation Against the United States Government Regarding the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet
Dr. John W. Day, Dr. Gary Shaffer, and Dr. Sarah K. Mack collaborated to write an expert report detailing the ecological damages caused by the design, operation, and maintenance of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO), and the relation of ecological impacts to increased hurricane damages. This case is currently being appealed to the United States Supreme Court and sets the precedent for the largest class action lawsuit against the United States Government (United States Army Corps of Engineers) in American history.
Though Hurricane Katrina was a storm of significant strength, the devastating impacts of the hurricane were a man-made disaster. The MRGO is a 75-mile long deep-draft shipping channel, constructed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in the early 1960s, that connected thousands of acres of storm-surge reducing bald cypress swamps and fresh marshes directly to the Gulf of Mexico. The navigation channel was constructed to shorten the travel time from the Gulf to the Port of New Orleans and its “levees” were originally thought to be suitable for economic development. The navigation channel caused the direct loss of more than 60,000 acres of wetlands and indirectly impacted hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands and estuarine habitat.
The channel itself and the loss of habitat increased flooding in New Orleans during hurricane Betsy in 1965 and more seriously during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The MRGO project was determined to be a significant cause of early and catastrophic flooding of the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish during Hurricane Katrina. A modeling effort that removed the MRGO from the landscape, and restored the cypress swamps and marshes killed by the MRGO, reduced flooding from Hurricane Katrina by 80%. The expert witness technical team concluded that the MRGO made the difference between localized flooding, and the catastrophe that killed 1,464 people and inflicted tens of billions of dollars of property damages. If the MRGO-caused economic damages associated with Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina are combined with those of construction, operation and maintenance, and wetlands destroyed, the total economic cost of the MRGO is in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
G.P. Shaffer, J.W. Day, S.K. Mack, G.P. Kemp, I. Heerden, M.A. Poirrier, K.A. Westpahl, D. FitzGerald, A. Milanes, C. Morris, R. Bea, and P.S. Penland. 2009. The MRGO navigation project: a massive human-induced environmental, economic, and storm disaster. Journal of Coastal Research 54:152–165 (link)
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