Millions for Bridge Collapse, Zero for Levee FailureMay 4th, 2008

The state of Minnesota will put up $38 million to divide among 158 victims as compensation for losses sustained in last year’s collapse of a bridge under Interstate 35 in Minneapolis. Thirteen were killed in the accident, which was the result of structural defects.

To claim part of the award, approved by both houses of the Minnesota state assembly, the victims, many of them now pursuing civil lawsuits for negligence, will have to release the state from legal liability. The total comes out to about a quarter-million dollars per person, but a third of the money will be used to sustain victims with severe permanent injuries. Victims of the 9/11 attacks made a somewhat more lucrative settlement of potential claims against the federal government and the airlines.

Law buffs might reasonably wonder why victims of the levee collapse in New Orleans aren’t entitled to similar relief. They have received nothing except modest emergency assistance. The explanation might be that this is a much more populous class of plaintiffs. The amounts awarded to victims of lesser catastrophes, like 911, would pale by comparison, given the scale of the damage to New Orleans and its residents. The losses could run to astronomical amounts, equal to several weeks of war costs.

The flood victims’ claims are no less meritorious than those of the other plaintiffs. The negligence–if it was negligence and not deliberate malfeasance–is patent, at least as egregious as the misconduct of those who let the planes crash into the buildings and those who let the bridge shudder till it gave way. Most responsible authorities had long known that the levees couldn’t survive a severe hurricane, but nothing was done to prepare for that inevitable event. Worse, among the officials who neglected the levees were people who celebrated the displacement of New Orleans’ African-American underclass, leading many of us to believe that the flood was the result of purposeful neglect by racists.

In addition to the uncounted dead and missing (try to find reliable numbers on the flood’s toll in and around New Orleans), hundreds of thousands remain displaced in the diaspora. They had so little before the flood that the rest of us are encouraged to assess their losses as trivial. They have nothing now, and nobody is proposing that they be recompensed like the victims in New York, Washington and Minneapolis. Americans should be asking why.