Report on Trinity Levees Shows A Failure of Dallas' Leadership

The latest word from the Army Corps of Engineers is sure to result in one thing: a run on rubber rafts at Costco

It's not working. Everything is turning to soup.

"The liquefaction was so extensive," the report says, "that it destabilized the area within a 20' radius of the 7-foot diameter pier. This area had to be backfilled in order to be able to support the drill."

They discover unexpectedly that they are on top of a deep, ancient layer of fine sand. The slurry isn't doing its job. Instead of stabilizing things, the slurry mixes with the sand and creates something like a giant Boston cream pie. An area 40 feet in diameter turns to goo beneath the drilling rig, which must be making the rig crew very nervous—"Ollie, I'm afraid!"—or at least a little seasick.

"When drilling resumed," the report says, "a casing was used to support the excavation. However, the bottom of the pier heaved and blew out."

Translation? They dump loads of dirt onto the area, trying to get it to calm down. They stick a huge pipe down there to try to keep the sand away. But some kind of enormous earth fart explodes deep in the hole, knocking everything to blithereens. At this point I see Ollie, his face masked by mud, fingering his bowler and glowering at Stan, who is blinking sheepishly through the mud with his hair on end.

"The pier excavation was finally completed using both casing and slurry," the report says. "During concrete placement, the contractor was unable to remove the casing with a 200-ton crane, so it remains a permanent fixture within the Floodway."

They can't pull the pipe back out. They don't know why exactly. So the engineers and construction managers on the grand Calatrava "signature" bridge job come to the same conclusion I might have, had this been a household plumbing project involving a broken bolt.

"Ah, shit, just leave the damn thing in there."

We're not done yet. When they went to the next pier shaft, according to the report, "The contractor also reported that difficulties with flowing sands complicated pier construction."

Flowing sands. Isn't that a nice name for it? Like a resort.

This one is really hard to explain. They tried to get a jump on the sand by building a kind of steel skirt or "diaphragm wall" around the hole as they drilled. But the sand turned to jelly again and began doing very weird, wobbly things. When they finally got enough of a hole dug to pour concrete, they couldn't pour enough to fill the hole.

Stanley: "More concrete, Ollie."

Ollie (rolling his eyes): "Will you make up your mind, Stanley!"

Eventually they pour twice the amount of concrete the hole is supposed to hold, and then they decide they have poured enough.

"A fine mess you've gotten me into!"

Look, I'm not making this up. It's all in the report. If you go to the Dallas Observer blog, Unfair Park, and search for "at long last," you will find the full report and can read it for yourself. You should. It's wild. It's the most amazing public document I have ever read as a reporter.

And now what do we do with the bridge? The Corps of Engineers has not "signed off" on whether the thing can even be completed. So if it can't be built, what do we do with the parts? Put an ad on Craig's List?

Parts for stunning landmark bridge by cool European architect, available for quite reasonable price from major Southwestern city. This could put your burg on the map! Financiamos.

I have given you this one example of what's going on out there. Now, if you want to get some idea of the full scope of the problem along the river, multiply this situation by 1,000.

The Corps of Engineers report cites hundreds of serious problems with the levees, including many other bridges built over the years in ways that weaken or compromise the levees and expose the city to threat of flooding.

The Corps itself is far from innocent in this. Kevin Craig, acting director of the Corps' Trinity River project, told me: "Five of the bridges were in place at the time the Corps made modifications to the system in the 1950s. The majority of the remaining bridges and other encroachments were approved by the Corps based on approval policies and procedures in place at the time."

So, as the city staff bitterly points out, the Corps approved this stuff and now has changed the rules. Terrible! On the other hand, in the wake of Katrina and other terrible levee failure floods around the nation, isn't changing the rules a good thing? Would the City of Dallas prefer the Corps stick with weak, compromised levees and just not tell us about it?

What does this Dallas Trinity River report tell us? The truth is obscured and soft-pedaled, but it's unmistakable nonetheless. I think this is what the report really says:

Forget the toll road. Forget the lakes. Forget the phony suspension bridges. You may have to clear-cut the Great Trinity Forest that acts as a bathtub plug at the down-river end. You may need to cancel the new southern Dallas levees that only serve to back up the river downtown.

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