Go With Your Gut

Do you really see a freeway somewhere out in that flood?

Trust your eyes. Go with common sense. If you've seen pictures of the Trinity River flooded from levee to levee in downtown, believe your gut: It's a fat angry cottonmouth snake inside your house.

If you have driven over the river, I don't have to tell you: That slimey thick-shouldered beast is surging beneath the bridges, shoving its round snout against the mud banks of the levees, searching for weakness.

Think of Katrina. This is the same story—rivers and human tinkering.

In his history of flooding on the Mississippi, Rising Tide, author John M. Barry describes 130 years of Katrina-like disasters that preceded the hurricane of 2005. Again and again he comes back to the same theme: Nature provides the raw force, but man creates the disaster by trying to tinker with the force.

One of the images that sticks with me from his book involves an early 20th-century attempt to make the Mississippi change its course in order to shelter some real estate. Men built earthen levees, as they have done here, to serve as prison walls, forcing the river to turn in a direction it didn't naturally want to go.

When the river flooded, that brown snout found soft soil beneath the levee and scoured it out in a huge tunnel. The river burrowed beneath the levee and exploded straight up into the air in a gigantic geyser inside the neighborhood on the other side.

Today in New Orleans people nurture a fervent hatred of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which they blame for building the levees and canals and flood walls that failed them two years ago. But blaming the Corps is a way for New Orleans to dodge its own responsibility for its demise.

Not that the Corps is blameless. But we have to go back to the way the Corps is set up by law. The Corps can do almost nothing without a "local partner." By statute and by political reality, the Corps can't come into New Orleans or Dallas and build what it wants to build.

I firmly believe—I will swear to you based on 10 years of watching them—that if the engineers of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been able to build their own independently designed flood control system in New Orleans, there would have been no Katrina disaster.

But huge areas of New Orleans also would never have been drained, sliced up into lots and peddled as prime real estate. Instead of neighborhoods, those areas would be wetlands today. And somebody would have missed out on big piles of money.

If New Orleans says to the Corps—if Dallas says to the Corps—"Thanks but no thanks," then the Corps can't do any work in New Orleans or Dallas. And the Corps, like all of us, wants work.

Imagine we say, "We're sure that's a real engineer's daydream you want to build there. But it doesn't let us peddle the land. So forget it. We don't want it. We want cheap floodwalls and higher levees and no real control of runoff, so we can make money off the land. And if you won't do that for us, take a hike. We don't want to be your partner."

In that case, the Corps is out of business. It has to have a local partner.

And then you have the factor of both U.S. Senators and every Congress member in sight calling the commander of the Corps in Washington and saying, "If you can't help my friends down there in Dallas a little better than you've been doing, you can sure as hell count on a rough year for appropriations next time around."

So what you get are compromises. The cheap flood walls and worn-out pumps in New Orleans were compromises that New Orleans forced on the Corps every bit as much as the other way around. Generally speaking, engineers don't design things to fail. It's the quick-money guys who do that for us.

At key points along the way, the Corps of Engineers has signaled in fairly plain language that it does not want the city of Dallas to build a high-speed limited access toll road along the river downtown inside the flood control levees.

Early on, now almost 10 years ago, the Corps stated in a study of the overall project that a highway inside the levees would seriously impair any recreational value the remaining space might offer.

More recently the Corps changed its mind about where the road can be built and told the city the road could not be built on top of or into the sides of the levees, as the city had planned to do. The Corps had to know that this edict would create huge new challenges for the road.

Then the Corps told the city the road must be designed in a way that is "hydraulically neutral" in its impact on the overall levee system. That's a whopper. It says the city can put a superhighway down there as long as its presence between the levees does not lift the flood waters between the levees by even a fraction of an inch.

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