updated 2/2/2007 4:48:10 PM ET 2007-02-02T21:48:10

Residents whose homes were flooded during Hurricane Katrina can sue the Army Corps of Engineers over claims the agency ignored warnings about defects in a nearby navigation channel, a federal judge ruled Friday.

The ruling, one of the first significant decisions in a set of cases over what caused the flooding, may force the Corps to hand over documents about the management of the channel.

"Now we will have an opportunity to see what goes on behind closed doors," said Joe Bruno, a trial lawyer for the plaintiffs.

Eugene Pawlik, a Corps spokesman in Washington, said the agency's lawyers are reviewing the ruling but did not have any immediate comment.

The Corps and federal government had argued they were immune to legal challenges because decisions about the waterway were based in policy.

But U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval said there is no way to know that at this point, and said plaintiffs should get a hearing for their allegations.

At issue is a 76-mile shipping channel built in the early 1960s as a shortcut to New Orleans. For years, environmentalists and others have criticized the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet because it has eroded enormous tracts of wetlands and increased the threat of flooding.

During Katrina, storm surge traveled up the channel and overwhelmed levees protecting St. Bernard Parish and eastern New Orleans, according to scientists. The Corps of Engineers has acknowledged that the channel contributed to the region's flooding and the agency wants to guard against future flooding by building flood gates.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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