When the Levee Breaks...

...It'll be too late to ask why

Maybe Katrina will save Dallas. All we need is a leader willing to put human lives and safety ahead of real estate deals and decorative bridges. Please let me know if you spot anybody like that within 10 miles of City Hall.

Last Friday in Chicago, a panel of engineering experts gave a heads-up on what they have learned over the past 14 months in New Orleans. These are government employees and academics whose language is decorous. Allow me to express their findings in my own terms:

It's every bit of bad news you could imagine, but worse: stupid federal policies that guarantee Katrina-like disasters, crass nickel-and-dime politicians, sleazy developers and a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that plays along with everybody in order to have work to do.

But mainly, most of all, above all else, it's exactly what we have in Dallas in the Trinity River project. In New Orleans there was not one person, not one local leader, not one officeholder or official who put the lives and well-being of people above all other concerns.

Instead, the flood-control system in New Orleans was a piecemeal, jury-rigged, spit-and-baling-wire piece of junk designed to keep a lot of pockets lined, mouths fed and people quiet.

And guess what? It worked like crap. People died, old folks drowned in wheelchairs, loved ones floated away forever because nobody, least of all the Corps of Engineers, put a foot down and said, "This system sucks."

That's exactly what we're doing here. New Orleans has already been through its Katrina. We are building ours.

In fact, there was an interesting preview to the Chicago conclave, which I did not attend, here in Dallas the week before at the University of Texas at Dallas. UTD President David E. Daniel, an engineer, is chair of a 14-member external review panel of civil engineers who examined the New Orleans flood-control system after Katrina.

Speaking to a small group at UTD, Daniel gave a synopsis of what he would say later in Chicago—mainly that the New Orleans flood-control system had everything to do with politics and legalism and not much with nature: "The actual legislation written by Congress said that the levees 'shall be designed for the most severe storm that is considered reasonably characteristic for the region.'

"What great language," Daniel said to laughter from his audience. "Perfect for the lawyers."

He gave an example of the havoc wrought by that approach. Levees are big earthen berms, fat dirt walls designed to keep water from flooding into an area. But their strength depends on what kind of dirt they're made of. Once water starts flooding over the tops of the levees, the water wants to dig out the soil and cause the levees literally to melt away.

In New Orleans, Daniel said, "the levees were built of highly erodable sand soils in many places. The Corps of Engineers, when asked 'How come you built with this highly erodable sand soil?' said the Congress did not authorize them to consider water levels above the authorized level of the standard...hurricane.

"Therefore it would have been illegal for them to spend extra money to design a levee so that they would be armored, so that they would not erode when overtopped, because that implied a water level higher than Congress authorized. Many, many miles of levee were destroyed because of this overtopping."

The Corps will argue—did argue, Daniel says—that the law limits what it can invest in a given project. For one thing, the Corps has to meet a cost-benefit equation. If the property that will be saved by a project is worth only $10, then the Corps cannot spend $20 to save it. It can only spend 10.

It's a point I discussed later by phone with Dr. Ed Link, a senior research engineer at the University of Maryland. Link, another of the experts who examined the New Orleans flood-control disaster, spoke to me from Chicago last week where he was participating in the Katrina panel. He said the initial miscalculation pointed out by David—preparing for too small a storm—was only the beginning, because then everybody started getting cheap even on that plan.

"As the plans evolved," he said, "cost became the big issue that ended up, in my opinion, causing a lot of compromise. There were a lot of competing forces at the federal level and local level. A lot of the structure that eventually got built was significantly less than what the original concept was."

All of this was beginning to sound to me like one gigantic complicated cover story or excuse for the Corps. Sure, if we make everything relative, take into account original sin and wear ourselves out debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, then I guess nothing's really anybody's fault, and the Corps is off the hook.

I asked Link if there couldn't be a point in the process where the Corps refuses to do a project—kills its own deal, in effect—because it knows the project won't be safe, even if it does meet the statutory requirements.

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