Our Views: $60,000 for Sewerage and Water Board director Cedric Grant's office 'a tone-deaf expense' _lowres

Photo provided by GoogleMaps -- Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans

A federal judge has appointed a mediator to resolve a lawsuit filed against the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board on behalf of more than 200 Uptown property owners who say the work on a massive federal drainage project has damaged their homes and businesses.

The suit, which was filed last year in federal court, alleges up to $80 million in damage to homes, foundations and sewer lines has been caused by heavy equipment, pile-driving and subsidence related to the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project.

A joint effort of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Sewerage & Water Board, the project involves installing huge underground culverts to handle bigger rain storms.

Under the mediation schedule ordered by U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt, property owners will have their claims reviewed by retired federal Judge Michael Hill in batches of 20, with the first group to be mediated by the end of the year.

Hill’s job will be to determine the nature and extent of the damage. While mediation doesn’t guarantee the homeowners will be paid for their claims – they could still go to trial – plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Whitaker said the case is very similar to one won by Broadmoor residents about a decade ago.

He called the mediation order an important first step in getting justice for 215 beleaguered property owners.

“This order goes a long way to healing the crisis caused by the construction methods used by the S&WB, and ensuring that justice will be served for these long-ignored residents whose homes have been ruined by this chaotic project,” he said.

Whitaker said that if all goes well, the process could be concluded by the end of 2017.

That’s welcome news for Uptown property owners who say their pictures and fine china have been rattled off the walls, their foundations and drywall cracked and in some cases their backyards swallowed by sinkholes.

“My whole backyard is caving in,” said Virginia Saussy, who lives on Napoleon Avenue. “I have boards screwed into my fence to keep my dog in the yard. The garage door is never going to open again.”

Saussy said a crack wide enough to put fingers through appeared across the floor of the garage several weeks ago.

“You say, ‘Oh my God, my floor just split open,’ ” she said. “It just split open one day — boom. Then they roll in a big piece of equipment, and a picture falls off the wall and you watch a crack shoot straight up the wall.”

“It’s been a total nightmare,” said Brenda Lackings, owner of Angel’s Haven Daycare and Preschool on South Claiborne Avenue.

Lackings says she has lost three-quarters of her clients because of shifting street closures that make it too difficult to get to her business.

“Some people have told me, ‘Brenda, I just can’t do this and try to get to my job on time,’ ” she said. “They are a loyal group of people, but how long do you tolerate that?”

Lackings said she has to pay out of her pocket to keep up with repairs in order to remain in compliance with state regulations for her business and even has been forced to take out loans.

“My contractor is on 24-hour call,” she said. “I have to make sure I’m OK for the safety of the children.”

The Sewerage & Water Board, which does not comment on pending litigation, is the defendant, rather than the Corps, because its financial commitment to the project includes liability for any damages.

The board has filed indemnity claims against the three general contractors on the project, who in turn have filed indemnity claims against all the subcontractors.

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.