Life's Cheap. Levees Aren't.

Corps of Engineers and city struggle to balance flood protection's costs versus the value of not drowning.

God may still be in his or her heaven. I'm not up on that. But I think he's about to vacate the regional headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Since the 19th century we Americans have believed that engineers are just a little bit better at building stuff than the deity, and engineers have benefited from our belief.

Now it's not a benefit. Climate change is causing more and worse weather disasters, wrecking property, killing people and beating hell out of dams and levees all over the country. It's only going to get worse, and the corps and other federal agencies would like to get the bull's eye off their backs.

For the last week I have been looking at internal agency documents and congressional testimony indicating that the corps wants out of the God business. It can no longer provide the level of flood protection people used to think it could, and Dallas may be one of the first places to get the bad news.

I got onto this a week ago after one of those bizarre backroom briefings at City Hall where people get up in front of projector screens like Chinese shadow puppets and speak in tongues. Assistant City Manager Jill A. Jordan was telling the Trinity River committee of the city council that the city may get off cheaper because of changes the corps has made to various plans for fixing the city's decrepit levee system.

But that's where things went blinky. Part of our savings, she said, may come from a new "risk assessment" plan being developed by the corps. Say what? How does a different "risk assessment plan" make it cheaper to fix the levees?

City council member Scott Griggs asked Jordan a series of questions based on the same theme: Did she mean that the corps was going to find out if we would accept a cheaper and less safe fix? She sort of wouldn't admit that, but she sort of did admit it.

"The federal government has challenges to come up with flood control funds," she said. "There is only so much money that we [the city] have for projects. There's just not an unlimited supply of money for either of us."

Yeah. So cheaper. A cheaper fix. Right?

But she wouldn't say that, and the Corps of Engineers people at the briefing wouldn't say it either. So I came back to the office, poured a figurative bucket of ice water over my head and dove in. What were they talking about? Was it like pig Latin? Could I figure it out?

First of all, Rick Perry may think climate change is a conspiracy, but scientists and the insurance industry think otherwise. Last July, Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois, told a Senate subcommittee hearing that since 1980 the country has experienced a dramatic rise in every kind of extreme weather — heat waves, cold waves, storms, floods and droughts.

"The wetter is getting wetter, and the drier is getting drier," he said. Man's influence on these events is so pervasive and powerful, he testified, that "nothing is entirely natural any more."

Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, told the same subcommittee that mankind keeps making things even worse by rushing into the most disaster-prone areas. As soon as the government builds a levee or a dam, people think it's OK to put up expensive buildings made with flimsy materials.

In measuring his industry's losses, Nutter said, "The fundamental driver is the increase in the number of people living in areas vulnerable to natural catastrophes, the increase in property values and the vulnerability of the construction materials and technology."

Other witnesses told the committee that the federal flood insurance program in only the last few years has plunged into debt to the tune of more than $17 billion, far more than it can ever earn back from premiums.

Guess what that means, fellow taxpayer. You and I eat it. The government either covers the debt out of tax revenues or allows the national flood insurance program to lapse.

Things aren't good.

In March 2010, the corps held a workshop on levee safety in Washington. A document summarizing the proceedings states that the attendees were broadly in agreement on one particular factor that I believe had to do with you and me.

"The groups acknowledged," the document states, "that in general, the public is 'risk ignorant.'"

Ouch. Risk ignorant? Well, let's think about it. The people at this workshop were hearing the same kinds of presentations the congressional subcommittee would hear a year later — much more severe weather, more disasters, more people at risk, insurance taking a beating, outdated infrastructure, dwindling financial resources.

Were we aware of all that stuff? I think not, fellow traveler. In the terms they were speaking in, I think we may be, in fact, risk ignorant.

So that brings us to the new Corps of Engineers risk assessment program they talked about at the shadow puppet hearing at City Hall last week. The key element is what the corps is calling "tolerable risk guidelines."

It's an entire science, really, devoted to guessing how much risk you and I will accept compared with the cost of reducing or eliminating that risk.

In this effort, the corps is working in collaboration with a Dutch entity called the Rijkswaterstaat, probably the world's most experienced agency in matters of levee safety and risk assessment. It's really fairly fascinating stuff for a flood wonk.

For example, the Europeans commonly compute one very important element in flood risk — human life — by assigning a monetary value to it. The corps doesn't do that, but it could.

Other federal agencies do it. Did you know that? I did not. Some of them use a parameter they call "value of a statistical life" or VSL. Others use something called a "willingness to pay to prevent a statistical fatality" or WTP. Depending on the agency, we're worth between $5 million and $10 million apiece drowned dead on a stainless steel slab.

Man. I hope my wife never finds out. I'll never go out in the canoe with her again.

Eric Halpin is the Corps of Engineers official in the Pentagon in charge of dam and levee safety. I sent him an email in which I asked, "Are you getting ready to tell people that you cannot protect them absolutely and forever and that they must share significantly in the responsibility for their own safety?"

He wrote back: "statement is very close to our position in the Corps regarding flood risk."

So where does that leave us? To what level of risk are we willing to expose ourselves? How much will we pay to reduce the risk? How smart are we?

Not everybody can be equally smart, after all. Some people will make better decisions, some worse. At a certain point, this entire process gets back to something I wrote about for our news blog, Unfair Park, on September 5. My piece was based on a September 1 article in Businessweek by Brendan Greeley, "The God Clause and the Reinsurance Industry."

Greeley wrote about people in the Swiss reinsurance industry who are formulating something they have been informally calling "Faktor K," where K stands for Kultur in German. At the risk of oversimplifying, we could call it stupidity insurance.

The Swiss reinsurers, whom we might think of as supreme bookies of destiny, began wondering after Katrina if there may be some parts of the world where people are just too dumb to take care of themselves. With wonderful Swiss sangfroid, they wondered if there was a way to charge for that.

There is, of course. Charge more.

So this is where we wind up. We can sit around the campfire with Rick Perry at the hunting camp with the unfortunate name humming the theme song from Bonanza and not believing in climate change all we want, but we can't pay for the damages. Can't afford it.

The feds want out of the business of protecting us from ourselves. They're tired of getting blamed every time we get washed down the creek, and it's getting worse, not better.

Here is where I think we finally get back to the Alice-in-Wonderland code-talking affair at City Hall last week. Theoretically, this whole business of tolerable risk can be reduced to an algorithm.

For example, the briefing to the council included evacuation policies as one of the factors that will be weighed in the corps' new risk assessment program. So what does having a set of government-issue water wings under your desk have to do with fixing the levee properly?

Aha! I actually found a Dutch bar graph that shows exactly what the relationship is. It's in Dutch, so I can't read some of the fine points, but it shows that people will accept a higher level of risk of levee failure — a cheaper fix, in other words — with an evacuation policy in place than they would accept without an evacuation policy.

You can put it in dollars and cents. Cost of water wings and loud oogah horn: $55,125.32. Cost of half-inch more thickness in levee: $55,125.33. Conclusion: Go with water wings.

Hey. This is healthy. This is good for us to know. It's a sound exercise. It's much saner than believing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is God.

But gone are the days when local government would simply plunge ahead, hand in hand with the feds, and build something to protect us forever. They're going to tell us more about cost, more about risk, more about cheaper repairs providing lower levels of protection and knowing how to swim.

They're going to get honest with us, in other words. Let's see if we can take it.

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18 comments
Guest
Guest

Pardon my ignorance, but is stupidity the only reason people live in disaster-prone areas? Specifically, when you are talking about housing developments in the flood-prone part of a large city such as Dallas (and perhaps in rural areas too), isn't this where the cost of housing is lowest and therefore more likely to be populated by the people who can't afford to live somewhere else? And isn't it often the minority populations who historically were confined to these kind of undesirable areas and can still make up the majority of residents now? People may be perfectly aware that they are living in the swampy part of town, just like they realize their neighborhood doesn't have good schools, but can they necessarily improve their situation? This seems like an Economic Justice issue to me if the federal, state, and local government decide that not fixing infrastructure is worth the risk. Do they value the life of these groups on the lower end of the sliding scale of worth?

I think the better long-term fix is to agree as a society to restrict development (and redevelopment) in fire-prone, mudslide-prone, hurricane and flood-prone areas (look at Point Bolivar after Ike and Bastrop after this summer's fires). It tends to have a greater impact on just the people whose homes are destroyed (like all of the taxpayer money going to assist them). But God forbid we tell anyone what to do in Texas.

Aaron
Aaron

People are more willing to be risk ignorant these days because the odds of winning some type of lawsuit lottery are substantially higher.

Finnrunner
Finnrunner

A "risk ignorant" and stupid public? Over the years we have all grown to take our public infrastructure for granted.

It's not just the leeves!!!! The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has been publishing for years an annual study of the cost to maintain our infrastructure. Bridges, water treatment facilities, roads, highways, airports, power transmission lines, power plants, to name just a few.

These facilities don't just take care of themselves. It's our elected officials that "sweep the cost for their care under the rug". Because they wouldn't get re-elected if they revealed the real obligation we have as a society to keep them in good condition.

Preacher8770
Preacher8770

shouldnt the title be ; THOSE SO STUPID THEY BUILD AGAINST A DIKE AND EXPECT SOMEONE TO FEEL SORRY FOR THEM WHEN IT IS BREACHED

DALFAN
DALFAN

Will vehicles on Leppert's Flood Road be required to have water wings on board?

The Genius
The Genius

So basically people should be responsible for themselves and deal with their own problems in a pro-active manner ? How "Republican" of you Jim, there may be hope after all!

Cleopatra, Queen of Denial
Cleopatra, Queen of Denial

Basically, this whole thing is about sitting here in the 21st Century A.D. watching less evolved persons slowly struggle to admit to themselves that the Pharonic concept of public works went out of style about 2000 years ago. And that this is very difficult for them to accept, therefore the rest of us should tolerate a little more of it for a little while longer.

BOLT GUN TO THE HEAD OF THE CATTLE!

Machine Shop
Machine Shop

Leppert was warned by the Corps that building the bridge could cause catastrophic failure to the leeve. Everyone ignored the warning and went along with the bridge. Now the Corps wants out so they don't have to be responsible to say "told you so".

TimCov
TimCov

You've hit the nail on the head. Nobody likes broken/congested streets and highways. Yet, in the USA, most of us appear to be unwilling to pay to fix and expand our infrastructure. Gasoline taxes have not gone up since gasoline was south of $1/gallon. Yet, people argue with raising the gasoline tax. I don't know why they think road repair and expansion has remained at the same cost when everything else has gone up in price.The same goes for things like levees. I made sure I didn't live in a flood zone when I bought my house. However, I also know that I will be adversely affected if the levees fail in a major metropolitan area. I support tax money going to repair/improve the levees to withstand the worst floods. Doing otherwise is penny wise and pound foolish.

Borderlord
Borderlord

Responsibility. Responsibility. Responsibility. It bears repeating because it seems to be the dirtiest word in English to so many. Of course I have the right to build in a flood plain - but I must accept the consequences, including higher insurance premiums, a chance of total loss if I choose not to insure, and the possibility of drowning. I have no "right" to be protected from my own, perhaps foolish, decision. I have no "right" to make someone else subsidize my choices with below cost coverage or money to rebuild. The responsibility for MY decisions is MINE. It is that principle that built this country into the greatest and most prosperous nation the world has seen, and it is its abrogation that is destroying us. Much as it seems to displease Mr. Schultze, the Army Corps is being forced by financial reality to take a few tiny steps back toward the concept of individual responsibility. If that movement continues and accelerates, we can once again look to our nation's future with unbounded confidence.

mynameisURL
mynameisURL

I think that if we get to the point that the levees might fail, we could always pray for it *NOT* to rain.

...or something...

DomManInT1
DomManInT1

"risk ignorant" is a understatement. People in general are just plain stupid.

Brad
Brad

I would agree that the public for the most part is "risk ignorant", in reality the public just flat doesn't care. Did the people of New Orleans truly think that living in that city was safe? That the threat of a hurricane didn't apply to them? If my house is leveled by a tornado is it the corps fault for not putting anti tornado facilities up? I live in tornado ally, I'm more than aware of the risk involved. Folks in California live with the uncertainty of earthquakes. Folks in Maine deal with dangerous winter weather. Don't blame the Corps for the choices of other people. The Corps had already warned the city that the levees could not withstand a major hurricane, yet when one was on it's way State and City leaders kept silent until the last minute before ordering an evacuation. Many people stayed anyway expecting everything to turn out great. Only after did they start blaming the Corps, or the President for their own mistakes. Whether global warming is a real threat of mankinds own making or if it's just a natural phase that the planet goes through the fact remains that the issue of levees and protective structures is not a failure of the corps, it is an issue because human kind continues to move into high risk areas due to a growing population and/or a high level of just don't care. Ignorant no, stupid possibly.

TimCov
TimCov

Jim, I have a suggestion for future articles. Replace the words climate change with long range weather forecasts. As soon as you put the words climate change in the article, you will have some people discrediting everything else you wrote in the article. However, if you just say that long range weather forecasts call for more severe weather (like we have seen in the past 20 years), you will have a lot more people paying attention.

I do find the last part of the article very telling. I think you are assuming a lot when you say they are going to be honest with us.

Preacher8770
Preacher8770

the gov cant protect people from their own stupidity. and building where you know its below sea level and will flood is stupidity. no one owes you one second of sympathy

Jim Schutze
Jim Schutze

Borderlord, I'm more on your side than you could know. For example, it's extremely politically incorrect to blame New Orleans for anything to do with Katrina. Everybody has to say that everything Katrina was the Corps' fault. But none of those canals and pumps and levees inside New Orleans were even the Corps legal responsibiity originally -- in fact they were banned by law from building inside the city perimeter -- so New orleans used its congressional delegation to get the law changed and move the perimeter inside the city in order to force the Corps to do work it wasn't supposed to have to do. Flood work inside a city is political needlework -- close, close, close -- and should be done by cities as storm water management. New Orleans fixed the deal to get the Corps to do what it wasn't set up to do and then blamed the Corps when it didn't work out. If you give people the amount of democracy and self-rule we have in this country, and then they use it to kill themselves, that's a suicide, not a murder.

Brad
Brad

Sorry, got a bit off topic there. The Corps should not be counted on as an end all be all solution for any communities problems. Perhaps the deluge of lawsuits, or the number of fingers being pointed at them, or perhaps it was the mountain of blame that was put it has made them rethink their place in communities. If it's such a big deal why don't local communities just hire outside firms to build and maintain levees, bridges, and such? Perhaps it's because the local communities don't have the funding or don't want to spend their money on something that the corps offers at a bargain rate? I think it's a shame that issues like this boil down to money, however that is the reality of the world we now live in.

Sand Boil
Sand Boil

A big amen about Jim assuming a lot. When have Jill Jordan, Mary Suhm, Tom Leppert (or his clone now in place), et al., ever, EVER been honest with us about any part of the Trinity boondoggle? "Buckets of money," "the Corps has signed off," "the parks can't be built without the tollroad," "the tollroad has to be built for Project Pegasus," etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

 
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