Flood money

The Trinity River Plan's billion-dollar vision of levees, parks, and ponds has Mayor Ron Kirk--and most of Dallas--spellbound. But engineers warn it could lead to a flooding catastrophe and destroy the same poor neighborhoods it's designed to help.

Why? Because the NTTA people, no slouches, did their own traffic study and didn't come up with a whole lot of people who'll be hurrying down from the airport to Balch Springs anytime soon.

In other words, the whole plan is a fragile, complicated arrangement that has been spun and spun in order to make the numbers barely come out right. In that context, Wesch-Schulze's casual diagnosis--"It would be more expensive"--probably means the whole deal would be dead on arrival if there were no levee.

The levee is the bridge that carries the road that pays for the digging that makes the lakes that lower the flood that the levee makes. So it all makes sense.

But to whom?

The last argument of the levee-boosters is that a public buy-out would shaft the people being bought out because of just what Noel Saldivar fears--that the city will buy him out at the new lead-contaminated price and leave him with not even enough money to buy a new car, let alone a new house.

Pete Vargas, the mayor's special "czar" in charge of the Trinity project, points out adamantly that the city, by law, cannot pay people a higher price for their property in a condemnation proceeding than the property's current market value. If neither you nor anybody else in his right mind would pay Noel Saldivar more than $13,000 for his house, then the city can't pay him more, either.

But in recent years, as national flood-control experts have come down more and more solidly on the side of buy-outs, not levees, many communities elsewhere have found a way around this same problem. Ron Flanagan, a nationally respected floodplain consultant in Tulsa, helped that city buy out more than 300 homes after severe flooding in 1984. Now Tulsa has an ongoing program of floodplain buy-outs, funded with bond money, and the city has found a number of ways to get around the legal requirement that it pay only market value for the properties.

"There is [federal] Community Development Block Grant money that you can use to help people in addition to what you pay them for the property," Flanagan says. "There is money for areas with hazardous-waste problems. There is all kinds of money out there available for communities that want to do things."

Linda Mele, a planner in DuPage County on the suburban fringe of Chicago, helps run an ongoing buy-out program, also funded in part with bond money. The DuPage program finds many ways to pay people more than market value.

"We pay closing costs and taxes," she says. "There is no Realtor's fee. We provide the survey and title insurance. There are a number of things the seller would normally have to pay for that they don't when we do a buy-out."

There are even options beyond levees and buy-outs. In the small but resourceful community of Chickamauga, Georgia, officials offer people in areas subject to flooding three choices, one of which is putting the house up on an elevated foundation.

"They can say, 'Raise my house above the 100-year flood,'" says Chickamauga city utilities manager John Culpepper. "Or they can say, 'Buy me out.' Or they can say, 'Don't do nothing.'"

The don't-do-nothing solution entails staying on at one's own risk, which Culpepper says is better than building a levee and putting a lot of new people at risk too.

At the bottom of the page, there may or may not be a need for more flood control downtown. But the levees below downtown make the risk to downtown greater, not less. They are flood makers, not flood controllers. And there are powerful arguments against building new levees to stir real estate development.

There is no strong demand for the levees in the neighborhoods. A fair buy-out that didn't screw people would be just as easy or easier for leadership to sell as the levees.

So why? Why all of this? What is it, really?
It's the age-old dream of the city's biggest and oldest land-holders, all the way back to that fateful day in 1902 when George Bannerman Dealey, the new business manager of The Dallas Morning News, strolled out onto the Commerce Street bridge to smoke a cigar.

Gazing down at the cracked mudflats of the Trinity River bottom, Dealey was suddenly struck by the notion that this broad expanse of worthless yuck next to downtown could be worth something someday, if someone just figured out a way to protect it from floods. He made up his mind to buy a chunk of that land, "notwithstanding the fact that I had no money to buy anything with," as Dealey recounted years later.

That was always the real secret of Chinatown--the secret of vision, the ability to gaze on miles of worthless muck-land, or miles of desert, see visions of teeming life and wealth there, then conjure those visions to reality by relentlessly stirring the cauldron.

The Trinity River Plan today is George B. Dealey's vision of 1902, dressed up, rouged, ready to dance, and just in time for the new millennium.

And what's so terrible about that idea? Isn't it fairly benign--pushing some mud around on a riverbottom nobody cares about, in ways that may bring new excitement to blighted regions?

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