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.

"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.

"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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