6 jurors selected in Katrina flooding case

GRETNA, La. (AP) - Six people were seated Monday to hear a civil trial over claims that Jefferson Parish's evacuation of drainage pump operators on the eve of Hurricane Katrina's landfall led to the flooding of thousands of homes.
Lawyers for both sides questioned an initial panel of 19 prospective jurors, disqualifying 13 of them. Several of them said they owned property damaged during or after Katrina while others said they have relatives whose property flooded.
A total of 12 jurors and four alternates are needed for the case.
The selection process resumes Tuesday.
Parish lawyers have argued the trial should be moved to a different parish, but plaintiff's lawyers say a jury of Jefferson residents can fairly evaluate the case.
Several potential jurors have said they didn't think they could be fair or impartial if selected to hear the case.
One woman said her elderly parents moved in with her after their home was wrecked. Initially, she told a plaintiffs' attorney that she thought she could be fair but later conceded to a parish attorney that she wasn't sure if she could.
"It was very, very hard," she said of the flooding after Katrina, fighting back tears.
Former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard is serving a prison sentence in North Carolina for an unrelated corruption conviction and is not expected to testify in person about the decision to carry out the parish's "Doomsday Plan" and evacuate more than 200 pump operators as Katrina approached in August 2005.
A few potential jurors said their opinion of Broussard would cloud their judgment.
Before the jury was brought into the courtroom, Judge John Peytavin said the trial would be broken into two parts. The jury will decide whether the parish or Broussard is liable. If they find liability, the second phase of the trial would deal with damages.
Peytavin indicated he wants the same jury deciding the entire case. "I don't want to go through the process of jury selection twice," he said.
The broken levees that flooded most of New Orleans didn't cause widespread damage in neighboring Jefferson Parish. The plaintiffs claim Jefferson Parish could have avoided massive flooding if the pumps hadn't been left unmanned for more than 12 hours, allowing drainage canals to overflow.
Broussard argued that he was immune from liability for all disaster-related planning decisions and actions before, during and after the storm. In 2008, however, a state appeals court refused to dismiss plaintiffs' claims that the order to evacuate more than 200 pump operators constituted "willful misconduct."  The appeals court also allowed the plaintiffs to proceed with claims that the parish failed to properly draft and implement its emergency plan.
During his November 2007 deposition, Broussard testified that he hadn't heard of the Doomsday Plan before Katrina and didn't make a unilateral decision to evacuate the pump operators along with other parish employees on Aug. 28, 2005.
Walter Maestri, who was Jefferson Parish's emergency operations director when Katrina struck, testified that the Doomsday Plan was part of a larger emergency operations plan. Maestri, who wrote the original Doomsday Plan in 1998, called it a "living document" that was constantly being revised.
Broussard, a Democrat whose political career spanned four decades, was re-elected to a second term as parish president despite the blame he shouldered for Katrina's flood damage. He resigned in 2010 amid a corruption probe that also produced charges against his former wife and two other former parish officials.
A federal judge sentenced Broussard to nearly four years in prison after he pleaded guilty in September 2012 to charges he cheated taxpayers in a payroll fraud scheme and took payoffs from a parish contractor. In May 2013, he started serving his sentence at a low-security prison in Butner, N.C.

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