Federal trial in case of Hurricane Harvey goes beyond the courtroom

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The closely watched federal bench trial on Hurricane Harvey flooding lawsuits took an unusual turn on Wednesday, as all the players drove, caravan style, to survey the areas at the heart of the legal arguments.

Call it a federal trial on wheels, the judge, attorneys on both sides, and witnesses gathered atop the Barker and Addicks reservoirs to see how these dams, dikes, and equipment all work.

They then went to the homes of all 13 plaintiffs who are a part of this "first-of-its-kind" test trial.

Along the Barker dam, attorneys from both sides asked witness, Corps of Engineer Captain Chuck Ciliske, a number of questions.

They range from basic questions about what creeks flow into the reservoirs to technical questions on subsidence, water flow, and other issues.

"I cut the power to the structure," said Captain Ciliske, recalling Harvey's downpour. "Once we got concerned, we cut the power and we operated (the dam) manually."

The court reporter held up a recorder to capture every word, and the occasional 'objection" yelled out on top of the dam.

It made for a surreal scene. Listening and watching everything intently is federal Judge Charles Lettow.

"It helps to see physically what's going on. Because you can hear descriptions and it's not the same thing," said Judge Lettow. "This is evidence to me."

It will be up to Lettow to determine if the government purposefully flooded the homes of people who lived upstream of the reservoirs in order to save inner loop and downtown Houston. If he rules on the side of the 13 test case homeowners, thousands of claims are expected to go forward.

"This clearly shows the reservoirs operated exactly as the government designed them, which will flood upstream properties if we get a big enough rain band," said Vuk Vujasinovic, one of the plaintiff attorneys in the trial.

On Thursday, court is expected to resume indoors, where video is not allowed. The financial future of many west side flood victims hang in the balance.

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