Katrina victims begin getting settlement forms

Thousands have begun receiving letters about an approved final settlement related to the levee breaches during Hurricane Katrina.

A federal judge recently signed off on the amount that attorneys in the case will receive in the class-action lawsuit, clearing the way for the letters and forms to go out to flood victims. The checks would average about $200.

The lawsuits targeted the Orleans, East Jefferson and Lake Borgne Basin levee districts.

"It is real, I'll say that because that's the first question people will ask me," said attorney Joe Bruno, one of the lead plaintiffs' attorneys.

Because litigation against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not successful, the settlement is based on litigation against the levee districts.

"Total pot $17 million sitting in the bank for some time," Bruno said. "We said no, you owe us interest from the day we filed suit."

Bruno said under state law, levee districts enjoy a lot of immunity, and even though a judgment can be brought against them, their assets cannot be seized, so there is little impetus to pay judgments. He said the districts' insurers ultimately settled.

And now attorneys know for sure what they will receive for years of work.

"If you think about the attorneys' fees, you eat it up, so as lawyers we decided let's just call it a day," Bruno said. We agreed not to charge any legal fees, but we said guys look, we've spent $14 million. Can we have a little bit of that cost back? So we negotiated with the defendants and we put a cap on our cost of $3.5 million. No, the lawyers did not get all the money, the lawyers go no money. The lawyers spent $14 million and recovered $3.5 so we're all losing. Do the math."

He believes there is a potential for at least 400,000 claims.

"The fewer the number of folks that make claims, the higher the money. I mean, it's math," said Bruno.

"A little bit is better than none," said Lakeview resident Joyce Mohr, who has lived in Lakeview for more than 60 years. "I think they said it was about 9 feet [of floodwater]."

Bruno said even though they were unsuccessful in going after the Corps, he believes the Corps deserves the heat for the levee breaches.

"Even though we lost, I think we gave a big black eye to the Corps of Engineers," he said. "I think it changed the way they think, I think it's changed the way they do their business."

The settlement amount aside, Bruno believes the lawsuits had to be brought given the devastation the levee failures wrought on the area.

"All of a sudden, everyone has forgotten about Katrina," he said. "The people in the Lower Ninth Ward were living behind a wall that the United States Corps of Engineers has publicly declared was defective. This money is not from the Corps. The Corps has given us absolutely nothing, let's  be clear about that."

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