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NEW ORLEANS — Since the first days after Hurricane Katrina, when the streets were still under water, many residents of New Orleans and its surroundings have maintained that the flood that wrecked their lives was the government’s fault, and that the government should pay for it.

On Wednesday night came news that many had hoped for but few had believed would ever actually happen: a federal judge agreed.

“My head is spinning,” said Pam Dashiell, a co-director of the Lower Ninth Ward Sustainability Project and a 20-year resident of the neighborhood. “Maybe things are really breaking for the people.”

The sense of vindication was widespread, but the practical implications were less clear. The morning after Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr.’s decision that the Army Corps of Engineers’ negligent maintenance of a major navigation channel led to major flooding in the Lower Ninth Ward and the adjacent St. Bernard Parish, a pleasantly startled New Orleans was still trying to decipher what it meant.

Was it an opening for tens of thousands of lawsuits, or a big class-action lawsuit, that could add up to billions of dollars in compensation for residents? Or was it leverage for negotiating a broader, regionwide settlement with the government?

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