By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The corps is trying to tell them: "Forget the baubles. The baubles are over. Forget that toll road. Probably forget the lakes. Fix the levees. We're not your girlfriend anymore. " But the corps isn't just coming right out and saying that in English. They're saying it in girlfriend.
That has to be harsh news for the mayor. He based his original bid for office on building the Trinity River Toll Road and completing the Trinity River Project, a multibillion-dollar boondoggle that forgot to mention levee safety. Brand-new fancy toll road? Check. Fake lakes? Check. Soccer complex, horse park, white-water kayaking, solar-powered water taxis, check-check-check-check. Levees possibly collapsing sending 20-foot wall of water into downtown at rush hour? Have to admit: Did not think of that one.
Now the question is not merely whether the levees can be quick-fixed to beat the mapping deadline. That's a terrible problem, but it may be less terrible than the other really, really terrible one we may face.
If the required repairs are "minor," in government terms, then the cost may be in the order of $150 million. But if the repairs are major, the cost could be billions of dollars. Some ideas seem simple—fattening the levees with more dirt, for example. But other ideas, like pouring a concrete wall down to bedrock the length of the levee system, would be enormously costly.
For the last six months, City Manager Mary Suhm has been telling the public that the levees can be fixed the down-and-dirty way, at cost of only about $150 million.
But the corps keeps asking for more tests. The tests are girlfriend-speak. Think about it. A major federal agency, even a weird one, is never going to just say it. They're never going to say, "You will have to do a major repair, possibly even a replacement of your levee system. Even with federal help, it will cost you billions and eat up all of your remaining borrowing ability. You can forget the Trinity River Project. The levees alone will cost you a major tax hike. You will all be thrown out of office. You will be personally reviled and despised for having let this happen. You will be remembered as fools. No one will trust anything you say ever again."
Major federal bureaucracies just don't say those kinds of things. It's not a case of pity. They just don't go out on those kinds of limbs. They don't put things on paper that can be thrown back in their faces in court cases or letters to members of Congress. So what do they say instead?
The corps told the city to carry out a program of "core sampling"—drilling down to test the dirt in the levees. The city did it. Then the corps said they needed the city to do a different series of core samples with the corps watching. The city did it.
Ah, well, now the corps says it really needs something else. It needs the city to carry out a series of "fully softened shear strength tests."
I looked it up. It's not just a straight-up joke like a snipe hunt. There is such a test, and there is a plausible reason for doing it. The corps is worried that the Dallas levees, made out of clay, may have lost their strength over the years and are subject to being washed away.
But what does it mean the third time around, when the tests still aren't enough? You know what that is, right? My mom is in town, and I'm out of town.
And you are not happening, buddy.
In fact, when I listened to the rest of the city council meeting, there was all kinds of girlfriend talk going on. Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan told the council, "We don't want to give the corps an excuse to not get this work done by the FEMA deadline."
Oh, that's...you know what that is. That's girlfriend-girlfriend. She's a jump ahead of the girlfriend. That's like, "Whatever you and your mom are doing this weekend, I want to be a part of it." Two can play that game, girlfriend.
Council member Tennell Atkins asked Suhm if she was sure she had enough money in the bank to fix the levees. She said she does have the money to pay for the repair plan, "...as the plan exists."
Atkins said, what if the plan changes? "What about Plan B?" he asked.
Suhm said, "As we get more information, if we have any issues with it, we will be back in January. There is no use supposing about something we don't have the information on."
"No use supposing." I love that. Somebody back in the day should have written that one as a song for Elvis.
You know what that means, right? Plan B? You think there's a Plan B? Are you kidding? Like, "Then if we're not going steady, what is Plan B?" Plan B is that door over there, Valentine Man. Plan on it.
See, I think Jordan and Suhm speak girlfriend. Fluently. They know exactly what message the corps is trying to send, and they're smart enough to send it right back at 'em. With a big old smile on it. Wash your truck with that, captain.