Down the River

Dallas is still using flood control money to scam black people

All right, let's get in the car and go settle this thing. A couple of weeks ago Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk shouted at me on the telephone and said I didn't care about the "thousands of black families all over South Dallas" who won't be protected from floods if the city doesn't build the Trinity River project.

I'm not quite sure how this got so personal. I'm a columnist for the Dallas Observer. The people who really slammed the Trinity River project a couple of weeks ago were the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, directly under the president. Why doesn't he go beat up on the president?

Mayor Kirk says the Trinity River project will protect "thousands of black families." But the area to be protected actually looks like this.
Mark Graham
Mayor Kirk says the Trinity River project will protect "thousands of black families." But the area to be protected actually looks like this.

Then again, I guess he tried. Right after the OMB issued its scathing report characterizing the Trinity River project as deceptive and inefficient, both Kirk and the editors of The Dallas Morning News tried to paint the OMB as some obscure federal agency that rode in "at the 11th hour" to sabotage a fine public works program.

Obscure? That's a major reach. It seems to be true that the OMB's criticism of the Trinity project was unusual, in both its depth and emphatic tone.

But what should that tell us? The president is from here. He was a golf buddy with all of the types who are pushing this thing. What do you think it took for his administration to produce this kind of near indictment? Something here had to look really bad to somebody really big, or this just would not have happened.

The mayor and that other famous font of social progressivism, the Army Corps of Engineers, say that this project will protect black families that never were protected by white-dominated flood projects of the past. I do happen to know this history. I wrote it, as a matter of fact. Until my 1986 book, The Accommodation, not a single Dallas author or historian ever had looked at the way the river interests in Dallas have used federal flood control projects to dispossess African-American families of their property, herd them into public housing camps and push them down river into even more flood-prone areas.

But let's don't do history lessons. The mayor says I don't care about the "thousands of black families" his project is going to help. So, please, hop in the car here with me, and let's go look at these families.

With me today I have brought a couple of documents that will prove invaluable to our endeavor, Plates A-37 and A-38 of a Corps of Engineers publication called "General Reevaluation Report and Integrated Environmental Impact Statement, Dallas Floodway Extension." The whole report occupies two fat ring binders, but these two maps happen to show exactly what property in Southern Dallas will be protected by the project if it is ever built.

Both documents are hydrological maps. One is of a pretty bad flood, the kind we could expect once every 100 years. The other is of a really terrible flood, the Noah flood, which we might expect once every 800 years.

The most striking feature of these maps is that they both show the Trinity project offering no new protection at all to most of Southern Dallas. Especially for the 100-year flood, the red squiggly line that shows how things are now without the project is drawn right on top of the blue line that shows where the water will go after the project is built.

In fact, that was the biggest criticism offered by the OMB. The OMB said it didn't understand why the federal government should spend tens of millions of dollars on levees in Southern Dallas when almost all of the new flood protection offered by the project is north of this area, in downtown.

But to be fair, there are a few small areas in the South that the plan would protect, especially from the Noah flood--areas not protected now.

OK, we're rolling. If you will look out your window on the passenger side as we proceed south on Lamar, to the west toward the river, you will find yourself right about now viewing the largest area of new protection. As you see, the first family whose home we are passing lives in an enormous corrugated tin and concrete structure, the Draggon Industries Inc. family. To be precise, I think that's the DimCO Steel Division of the Draggon Industries Inc. family. Interesting folks, huge place, serious about yard work.

All right, next door to the Draggons, we have the $Best$ Scrap Metal family in another quite large residence. Now we're going by the Kilo's Beer & Wine family. Looks like there may be a reunion going on there. Next door you see the home of the Gold Metal Family. I wonder if I knew their son in college.

Now I have pulled over to recheck Plates A-37 and A-38 against my Mapsco. Yeah, that's right. Look, I feel that I need to be precise here with you about what we're looking at. It's true that right across Lamar on the other side of the street there are normal-looking residential areas. But those areas are already protected both by Lamar Street itself, which is built up and acts as a levee, and quite a bit farther down by the existing Rochester Park levee, which the city built some years ago.

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