Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Katrina claims add up to quadrillions

The most expensive Katrina claims filed so far against the Army Corps of Engineers -- those specifying damages of at least $1 billion each -- total $3 quadrillion, according to a thumbnail set of figures released Monday by the agency.

That's $3,013,283,057,589,910, to be exact. And no cents.

One claim alone accounts for all but $13.3 trillion of the total, and that one came from Baker -- 93 miles northwest of New Orleans and far outside the Katrina flood zone. Federal privacy laws prohibit the corps and plaintiffs' attorneys from identifying claimants by name, so the basis for the Baker claim was not immediately clear.

The corps released a list of 247 claims of $1 billion or more in response to requests from news organizations. Most claims were filed by individuals. Fourteen of them included compensation requests for "wrongful deaths."

The list includes a $77 billion claim filed by the city of New Orleans, which is a matter of public record, as well as three claims by unnamed insurance companies, according to the Bruno & Bruno law firm, which represents thousands of hurricane victims.

Anyone seeking to collect damages from the federal government must first submit a Form 95, which preserves the right to sue. Almost a half-million such forms have been filed with the corps since levees and floodwalls failed during Katrina, triggering catastrophic flooding that killed more than 1,500 people in Louisiana and ruined homes and businesses. Though the accounting is far from finished, it is generally considered the costliest disaster in U.S. history.

The corps reports receiving 489,000 claims as of Monday. But corps spokeswoman Amanda Jones said that a number of those are duplicates.

At the same time, some claims are still being filed, and the corps is adding them to the agency database, Jones said. The filing deadline was Aug. 29, and a lawyer involved in some of the cases said a federal judge will ultimately decide whether to accept claims filed after date.

Lawyer Joe Bruno, who said he represents about 70,000 Katrina victims, is concerned that the dollar value of claims listed on the Form 95s will be used to vilify Katrina victims.

"It will be obscene if anyone uses these to paint our people as being a bunch of money-grubbers," he said. "The forms are a joke, but the government requires them.

None of the claims have been investigated by the corps or presented in court. And until they are verified, Bruno said, it's impossible to know what the real numbers are.

"Government also requires that you put down a figure .¤.¤. although only a judge can determine value." he said. "But here's the deal: Whatever number you put down, you can never get one dollar more than that amount. To be safe and fair, we told folks they'd better put a larger number."

For that reason, Bruno said, the numbers on the claim forms have little to do with what he ultimately expects claimants to recover.

"My best estimate as to the worth of this case .¤.¤. the amount of uncompensated damages .¤.¤. is about $50 billion," he said.

The biggest claim of the 247 is for damages of $3 quadrillion, and it's a personal claim that doesn't include a wrongful death. According to information released by the corps, the claimant listed a ZIP code for Baker, which wasn't directly affected by the levee breaks and subsequent flooding.

Robert Warren II, another lawyer with the Bruno firm, said he doesn't think his firm represents the Baker claimant and that there might be some sort of "issue" with its size.

"It's just speculation on my part without seeing the form," he said. "It could be a data entry error or just emotion. This person could be a relative of someone who was injured or died in the storm."

Or, Warren said, the filer might have mistakenly put a mailing address, perhaps a temporary address used after Katrina, instead of the ZIP code where damages are alleged to have occurred.

In some cases, Bruno said, people put "outrageous" amounts down "because they're outraged.

"Try sitting on your roof for days until you're rescued by a helicopter," he said, "and you'll be outraged, too."