Drowning in Lies About the Levees

Corps of Engineers documents contradict city's claims that everything's hunky-dory with plans to fix Trinity levees.

I can tell you this much for sure: You and I do not know the truth about the mortal danger to downtown Dallas posed by potential flooding on the Trinity River.

I will give you specific important instances here of misleading statements by public officials, but I can't give you one thing. I can't tell you how much worse it is.

Since February 2009, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared the 23-mile-long Trinity River flood-control levee system "unacceptable," we have been told that our levees failed inspection because the corps, embarrassed by the 2005 Katrina debacle in New Orleans, applied new, tougher safety standards to us.

The repeated suggestion was that Dallas had done nothing wrong. We were just paying a price for the sins of New Orleans. That's not true.

The corps, which is responsible for most of the nation's big flood-control dams and levees, confirmed to me last week that the safety standards that our levee system failed to meet were in effect years before Katrina struck New Orleans.

A worse example: As recently as October 3, city staff and corps officials told a Dallas City Council committee that the city was steaming ahead full-speed with plans for restoring the levees to the minimum "100-year" flood protection, with approval of the plan by the corps anticipated in February 2012.

Also not true. The corps confirmed to me last week that it has modified its "environmental assessment" of the city's levee repair plan to remove any language that might express agreement with or endorsement of the city's plan to get the levees back to the minimum required 100-year protection level.

The corps, which has a kind of business interest in keeping the city happy as a major client, had more to say about it than that, and I have chopped up their responses a bit to get to what I think is the meat. They do not say the city misled anyone, and I will get to that, but first let's recall what city officials have been telling us for years.

In a story in The Dallas Morning News October 12, 2010, former city councilman Dave Neumann, then chairman of the council's Trinity River Committee, said the corps was running the city ragged: "Each time we move forward and we think we have an agreement with the Corps of Engineers — at the district office, the division office, the headquarters office — we keep getting basically re-engineering of the engineering that we agree on."

Tom Leppert, mayor at the time, echoed the refrain: "We'll go down one path and be told that's the path that we need to go down, and then all of a sudden there's another path," he told the News.

Sometimes city officials have even been specific in their explanation of how the corps switched up the game on them. In August 2010, referring to an arcane soil engineering concept called "fully softened sheer strength," City Manager Mary Suhm said, "The corps will tell you they changed their mind and added something else in."

No. They won't. They told me the standards haven't changed since pre-Katrina. But I knew to ask. I'll tell you why in a minute.

Fully softened shear strength is a measurement of the strength of a dirt levee when it is soaked with water. Suhm has maintained for three years that the corps is subjecting the Dallas levees to a new standard appropriate to the Mississippi River, where levees are barraged by water, a standard she says is too tough and not appropriate for conditions here, where levees are dry most of the year.

Two weeks ago I came into possession of internal Corps of Engineers documents that paint a very different picture. I don't know who sent them to me. I have not shown the documents to the corps yet for confirmation, because I am not sure whether doing so might betray the identity of my source. But when I questioned the corps on key elements within those documents, I received what I consider confirmation.

I referred the corps to their own 2003 manual for levee construction standards, which called for the fully softened shear test as a measurement of levee strength — in Dallas and elsewhere — two years before Katrina. I also asked if another, technical standard regarding the shape of the levees had changed.

James Frisinger, a corps spokesman, agreed that "earthen levee design standards have not changed" since before Katrina.

What has changed since Katrina is inspection standards. After Katrina in 2005, the corps began looking harder to see if the nation's levees were being maintained to the standards prescribed by law, by federal rules and by the corps' agreements with local governments.

The flaws in our levees didn't just happen. They've been there for decades, long before Katrina. Our levees are the only barrier between downtown, Oak Cliff and the wall-of-water floods that would occur if a levee collapsed during one of our biannual monsoon seasons.

Long before Katrina, the levees fell shockingly short of the "800-year" levels claimed for them — meaning they might not withstand the sort of flood expected to happen once every 800 years, a guarantee made for years to property owners by the city. When the corps finally did a real inspection of them in 2007, it found the Dallas levees didn't even meet the minimum 100-year level needed to avoid mandatory flood insurance for property owners in the flood plain behind the levees. Those results were not made public until 2009 when the corps withdrew its own imprimatur from the Dallas levee system.

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20 comments
Catbird
Catbird

Well, all I have to say is that if downtown is flooded out of existence that it will only harm the wealthiest 1% and the corrupt bnkers who own the real estate so who cares? Let it rain.

We are the 99%!

Marc
Marc

Jim, there is one misconception in this story that drastically needs to be corrected - an 800-year flood does NOT mean a flood of that magnitude once every 800 years. That is a totally erroneous characterization. The term applies to the chances of a flood of that magnitude EVERY year.

In other words, an "800-year flood" is specifically a 1-in-800 chance of a flood of that magnitude EVERY year! Dallas has seen "500- year floods" several times within a ten year period, and recently saw those floods twice in three years.

People who do not understand the specifics of these terms should not use them carelessly, as LIEppert, Neumann, Natinsky and Suhm do (and did) so often. The problem is that none of those people has the brain power or comprehension to grasp the scientific meaning of that terminology, and if they DO possess the intellectual capacity to grasp it, then they are just flat out lying through their teeth when they tell you those terms refer to the number of years between a flood of such magnitude.

I brought this matter to the attention of LIEppert and Natinsky at a public forum where they were selling the Trinity Toll Road Project at the Greek Orthodox Church at Alpha Road and Hillcrest Road a couple of months before the vote to approve that project occurred. Their lies are part of what sold people on the project. Had they been truthful, then the vote probably would have gone the other way. I even challenged them to confirm what I told them with the USACE disctrict office in Fort Worth. Either they did not do that, or else they did, and then continued lying to sell their pet project.

Jim Schutze
Jim Schutze

Excellent point,and then you have te fact that climate change, development and lack of land use policy are rapidly rendering all of these terms obsolete and largely meaningless, anyway.

Darrd2010
Darrd2010

None of this exposure would have happened without Marc's involvement. So kudos to him for shining a light on this disaster in the making. After waiting months to hear from City Hall and the state attorney general about correspondence between the city and the USACE, I now have letters saying, that it's not of my business. How do you like that?

mynameisURL
mynameisURL

It's not even that folks like Leppert & Suhm don't or couldn't understand the specifics of the terms, it's far worse than that: They just plain don't CARE. Their intellectual curiosity extends only as far as it needs to to insure their continued employment and sustaining their standing in the good graces of the Dallas glitterati. (WOOT! Paty at the OMNI!)

IBG-YBG politics, (I'll Be Gone, You'll Be Gone) Instant gratification, money in the campaign coffers to promote grand ego projects (Fancy bridges, we're looking at YOU) from those most able to provide that largesse, and "Nuts to you" to those least able to do so.

Also, none of *their* houses are in the flood plain, so, there's that, too.

Mayor Mike Rawlings: Leppert II, the Electric Boogaloo...

Marc
Marc

Dear URL,

You are so correct! The motivation for people like LIEppert, Suhm, Neumann and Natinsky is how much money can be made for themselves and their personal friends/campaign supporters. They certainly are not about to allow truth and fact to get in their way. They know the truth because it has been told to them, in this case by me personally, yet they still persist in repeating their lies to dumb down those whose votes they need to succeed.

JimS
JimS

Well, I found your Huff Post piece of two years ago, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/...and I think i get it, if I'm reading the right thing. It looks like the same thing I get from the Corps all the time here. They just burrow down into bureaucratic arcana of the past deep enough to where they know reporters won't be able to follow them and then float all kinds of baseless assertions. Right now the Corps here has been stymied for a week trying to come up with answers to my final questions. I can tell they're going to come up some assertion that, even though it was their official action that precipitated the de-accreditation of the Dallas levees, they have noting to do with re-accrediting them. At any rate, I guess I see what they tried to pull in New orleans with the thing about the perimeter barrers. They point to a basically irrelevent battle over costs on other projects, which they lost, and then weave that into their own decsiion not to do the barriers and assert that that's why their canal flood walls failed. I talked to Harry Shearer for his documentary and he said, "Whose idea was it to put the army in charge of flood congtrol?" Good question, eh?

Levees.org
Levees.org

Yes, many decades later, the corps points to an irrelevant separate issue, and disingenuously asserts that's why their canal walls failed. We have collected even more solid data in the years since I wrote that post. Bottom line, the corps recommended gates at the mouths of the three outfall canals because it was the cheaper option, not the better option. There is no evidence the corps thought the use of gates was a better flood control option. Keep in mind, the gates proposed in the 70s did not have auxiliary pumps like those built post Katrina.

We remain open to the idea of consulting with you on a post dedicated to this extremely important issue. --Sandy R.

JimS
JimS

Blog software screwed jup. Above was intended as reply to Sandy Rosenthal below.

Replay
Replay

sounds like city officials could not carry a straight story if you gave them a bucket to put it in.....just sayin'

Levees.org
Levees.org

Thank you Jim Schutze. We over in New Orleans have been watching the goings on with the Trinity River Project since 2005 with interest. Since Katrina, we, the residents of New Orleans have been blamed for our suffering. The 'story' was that we "blocked the Corps of Engineers" from building proper flood protection. That 'story' persists, even though now, 6 years out, no credible expert has found a shred of evidence to back up this claim.

In addition to our suffering, we were blamed for bringing the Trinity River Corridor Project to a grinding halt, a project we understand would be a transformational public project in Dallas history. Thank you Mr. Schutze for working so hard to reach the truth, and for putting it out here for everyone to see.

Sandy Rosenthal, founder of Levees.org

Jim Schutze
Jim Schutze

Mr. Rosenthal, maybe this isn't the right place for this discussion, but let me ask you something about all this. A month or so ago I had a conversation with John M. Barry, author of "Rising Tide," and I asked him about the question of New Orleans's culpability in Katrina. First of all, he said eight ways to Sunday that New Orleans had no culpability, in his view, and all the blame went straight to the Corps. But he conceded that the Corps was originally barred from building floodworks within the city -- limited by law to peripheral works -- until New Orleans, through its congressional delegation, got the law changed to draw the Corps' into the city. Barry didn't say this, but I am aware there is an argment that this put the Corps where it did not belong, geographically and politically, because it drew the Corps into urban storm water management, which is very fine bore and susceptible to all kinds of local politcial pressure. Again, this is not Barry's theory. He said to me several times, don't blame New Orleans, blame the Corps. But I am troubled by this chapter. Do you think it gives the city any responsibility, if not culpability, for theultrimate failure of those works?

Levees.org
Levees.org

We are glad you asked because the nation needs to know. And we agree that the full answer to your question may not fit easily here into a comment. In short, after six years of study, we have not found evidence of local culpability for the failure of the outfall canal floodwalls designed and built by corps. But we are happy to consult with you should you decide to devote part of a post to this important question. --Sandy R.

Tom L (No, Not That L)
Tom L (No, Not That L)

Look, Jim, you're getting too worked up over this. All we have to do is ignore the levee problem and sooner or later it'll go away.

Montemalone
Montemalone

Problem is, it'll probably take all of us with it.

Likeicare
Likeicare

"why, exactly, would we trust anything else they tell us?"

I never have.

Hunter Deaver
Hunter Deaver

The response of the corps to the leaked document is telling. The apparent indifference of city officials to a potential life and death situation caused by failed levees is scary, yet not surprising. At least we have a kayaking run...

Scott Roberts
Scott Roberts

"The picture painted by [the corp technical staff] is of Dallas city officials misleading the public about the nature of the problems with the levees, while front-office management in the corps, eager to avoid alienating Dallas City Hall, leans on the technical staff to keep its mouth shut."

Sounds like there is some internal wrangling going on within the corp itself. It's not too far-fetched to believe that the "front-office management" at the corp really is trying to skirt the standards and work with the city, but the technical staff is being obstinate (and rightly so).

 
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