When the Levee Breaks...

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

"If I look at the Corps as the people's engineer," I asked, "is there a moment when the Corps should say, 'Look, what you need are expensive reinforced levees here in New Orleans, and you can't afford them. We're not authorized to build them. We're engineers, and we're not going to build something that won't work, so there's no project.'"

"That's a huge question," Link said. "From an idealistic perspective, there has to be a moment like that somewhere in these processes."

But just try to find the moment, he said. "This project, for example, was authorized in the mid-'60s and wasn't scheduled to be finished until 2015. It becomes so disjointed.

This was the street in front of my house last March. Do I have faith in the city's flood control system?
This was the street in front of my house last March. Do I have faith in the city's flood control system?

"There's cost sharing that has been mandated that requires a local entity to pay 35 percent of the cost. A lot of local entities try very, very hard to drive the total cost of the project down to make that 35 percent as small as possible. I think a lot of that happens not just in New Orleans; it happens everywhere.

"So you get a whole bunch of compromises, a bunch of decisions that are made. Any individual decision may not break the camel's back, but when you put them all together in a pile, you end up with a lot of cumulative risk that you weren't aware of."

He was talking about Katrina and New Orleans, but he could just as easily have been talking about the Trinity River project and the Dallas floodway extension here. The Trinity River project goes back to the 1950s, when landholders along the river bottom started lobbying for a highway next to the river to enhance property values.

Former Mayor Ron Kirk ditched a community consensus plan for parks and lanes along the river—a plan that had consumed countless hours of effort by unpaid community volunteers and civic leaders—and turned the project over instead to a private lobby of land barons and public works contractors. The first thing the Kirk gang did was announce they were going to change a 45 mph parkway along the river into an eight-lane freeway on top of the levees.

The Kirk version only got worse under current Mayor Laura Miller, who was conned into thinking her mayoral legacy should be a series of Neiman Marcus-style decorative bridges along the river.

Backers of the project have been forced to admit in court that putting an entire freeway inside the levees will make flood dangers worse, because it will squeeze the water up over the top of the levees sooner. Their glib rejoinder is that the levees can just be stacked up higher with more dirt and the river channel dug down deeper.

But nobody has ever come up with anything like a serious engineering study of the overall proposed system. What is the cumulative impact of all of those alterations of the river channel? Is it really safe to put all of the vibration of a high-speed roadway on top of levees?

Nobody knows, because nobody asks. Everybody wants a piece. We need to remember why those levees are there: The Trinity River is subject to massive periodic flooding that takes lives and destroys property. Those levees aren't decoration.

The good news is that the lessons learned from Katrina may inspire a whole new approach to plans like the Trinity River project. Gene Pawlik, a spokesman for the Corps in Washington, told me the Corps recognizes some basic truth in what experts like Daniel and Link are saying.

"Fairly recently the [Corps of Engineers] chief of engineers had a press conference, and one of the things that he talked about was that the Corps and the nation have to look at the cumulative impacts of decisions that are made over a course of time.

"When you have something like a system in New Orleans that is built and developed over 30, 40 years of time, how do all of the decisions that are being made relate to one another? What is the cumulative impact?"

I've never heard anybody at Dallas City Hall ask that question. I've never heard anybody say, "Look, way before I care about real estate deals and decorative bridges, I want a comprehensive engineering study to tell me what effect all this will have on the safety of life and limb in Dallas."

It's possible—just possible—that the findings announced in Chicago and maybe even a new 'tude at the Corps will bail us out anyway. The Corps still has to do an environmental-impact study on that freeway on top of the levees. Maybe in the process they will also do a disaster-impact study.

Nobody asked in New Orleans, either. Everybody had his own little piece there too. Look what their pieces are worth now.

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