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.

But it's just that core of the idea--the real core, the place where it does hang together--that frightens and astonishes so many of the national flood-control experts outside Dallas.

The real core of the idea is stirring the pot to make things happen in real estate.

Clancy Philipsborn, a Denver consultant who helps governments work out new flood-control strategies, says it is unusual, given the overwhelming sentiment in the field, that leaders in Dallas would even admit publicly that they want to build levees in order to spur development. "I'm surprised they're coming out and saying it," he says.

Constance Hunt of the World Wildlife Fund in Washington says the whole idea of using a flood-control project to boost development is wrong-headed, especially given the strong evidence that flood levels will rise in urban areas in the next century.

"It's a really bad idea," she says. "Most structural ideas are based on hydrological data that goes back 100 years or less. During the 100 years that we've collected the data, conditions have changed significantly, mostly in ways that make rivers more prone to frequent flooding."

Flanagan, the Tulsa expert familiar with the Trinity Plan, says only Dallas would consider such a plan. "Dallas is the 800-pound gorilla. It does and gets exactly what it wants." He predicts that, if the Trinity Plan gets done, "it will be the last of its type ever, anywhere in this country."

When the Corps officials and city officials and even the tree-huggers talk about the project, it's usually in a language of almost total abstraction--hydrology, probability, land values plotted on a curve, crests, volumes, impedances, and that 800-year or whatever-it-is flood level.

But the real language of the issue is in the roar of the river--the awful sound of the crest coming up at night, the agonizing thrill of watching the angry water creep up the levee banks, closer and closer to disaster.

Seeing a flood with your own eyes is a life-changing event. All the most solid and permanent inventions of man begin to warp and groan against the raw force of the water. The man-made world flexes at its foundation, lifts up in a watery ascension, and then simply floats away.

We call them acts of God, but floods--especially floods in cities now--are the product of entirely human acts of will. It's what we decide to do about it. Noah--the real one--didn't build a levee.

The real mystery of the Trinity is whether anyone could or would deliberately devise a plan, knowingly, that would send souls away on the flood. But then that may depend on who it is and what the stakes are.

Near the end of Chinatown, Noah Cross says, "Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time, the right place, they're capable of anything.

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