Levees Are Not an Act of God

At the pit of my own stomach while I watched New Orleans drown was a nauseous awareness. This misery was no natural disaster. This was human error mixed with sin. And Dallas, where I live, is in the process of committing the same errors and sins, which will lead inexorably to the same outcome.

You want to know who's to blame? You. Me. All of us. We vote for floods like this. We seek them. It's not a secret. Everybody with any serious connection to flood control knows what happened in New Orleans.

But almost two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the only writer I could find in America who had even raised the question was Bill Lambrecht, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who wrote a good piece under the headline, "U.S. government ignored advice after Flood of '93."

We've been here before. How quickly we forget. Eight years ago the nation was riveted by images of the entire downtown of Grand Forks, North Dakota, in flames above the flooded Red River of the North. In the early 1990s, devastation raged along the Upper Mississippi like a cruel war that wouldn't end.

That wasn't nature. It was levees. Levees killed human beings and wiped out towns and cities on the Mississippi in the early 1990s. Levees flooded Grand Forks. Levees drowned New Orleans.

In Lambrecht's story for the Post-Dispatch, he points to the "Galloway Report"--a compendium of knowledge in flood control, soil science, engineering and meteorology ordered up by the White House after the Mississippi floods of the early '90s. The starting point was a realization that this country had spent $38 billion on flood works between 1960 and 1985, and during that time the country's losses from flood damages had tripled.

To oversimplify, the Galloway Report said the combined effect of levee-building and real estate development close to levees was making flooding worse, not better. Much worse.

That finding has been utterly ignored. Our own multibillion-dollar Trinity River project, to rebuild the river that runs through downtown, is a perfect example of why the Galloway Report died on the shelf. We are doing every single thing the report warned America not to do--jamming massive new freeway construction down cheek-by-jowl with the river, raising levees, encouraging lots of fancy new development in what would otherwise be cheap flood plain.

It's a simple principle: Squeeze the river so it runs faster and higher, creating more water pressure within the levee walls. Lure in lots of expensive construction right along those walls. Wait for the big one. It'll come. The one thing flood experts all seem to agree on: Levees are designed to fail.

Lambrecht's story misses a certain point, which I raise only very grudgingly. It sticks in my craw. Not to show my politics or anything, but I would love nothing more than to blame George W. Bush for everything that has ever happened. Since Creation.

After the Galloway Report, Congress decreed a movement away from levees as a principal mechanism of flood control. The alternative--natural flooding, buy-outs and low- to no-development zones in threatened areas--was to become our national priority.

Lambrecht's story says nobody in Washington ever tried to enforce that policy. But in fact one guy did. Here. In October 2001, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., director of George W. Bush's Office of Management and Budget, ripped the Trinity River project in Dallas for all of the errors and sins I have mentioned and succeeded in having it removed from the president's budget.

For that, Daniels was assaulted by one of the most impressive bi-partisan armadas I have ever seen assembled in 25 years of reporting on Dallas. Democratic Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, joined blue-chip Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, with support from every liberal, conservative, vegan and clog-dancer in the greater Dallas territory to rip Daniels' heart from his chest.

We all wanted this pork. Desperately. Just like they had wanted it in Grand Forks. The same way they had wanted it in New Orleans at some point. And guess what. We won.

Someday, like New Orleans, we will reap the harvest of our victory.

 
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