5 Things That Could Destroy Dallas

The view from the alley behind Pebble Beach Drive in Rowlett, looking toward a water tower also damaged by an EF3 tornado.
The view from the alley behind Pebble Beach Drive in Rowlett, looking toward a water tower also damaged by an EF3 tornado.
Patrick Williams

Over the past year, as Dallas has confronted tornadoes, flooding and 15,000 screaming neighbors who showed up to cheer Donald Trump, we here at the Observer have been forced to confront our civic mortality and to embrace apocalyptic fervor with a zeal that we normally reserve for stories about pot decriminalization efforts or NSFW slideshows. If we do actually get taken out, clinging to our bar stools at the Grapevine or in the middle of inhaling a burger at Off-Site Kitchen, we probably won't know what hit us — hell, it might even be the rapture — but if you made us take a real guess, here are five ways we think our city might go out.

The Big Tornado
It hasn't happened yet, but there's always a chance. An F5 (F5s feature wind gusts between 261 and 300 mph) tornado could hit Dallas, something that hasn't happened in recorded history. In fact, since 1950, only one F5 tornado has hit Dallas County — the 1994 twister than killed three in Lancaster. That, federal research meteorologist Harold Brooks told the Observer in 2009, means Dallas is due in a pretty big way. According to Brooks, an F4 or F5 tornado should hit a 25-mile range around Dallas every 33 years or so. If and when that happens, it could be disastrous. A 2000 study performed by the North Central Texas Council of Governments estimated that an F5 could strand as many as 87,000 motorists on their ways home. Deaths and injuries would be in the thousands, and property damage could be in the billions. When the Discovery Channel made a series about "Perfect Disasters" striking the world's major cities, a super tornado hitting Dallas was the premiere entry — and the show's makers asserted it was the most likely of all the disastrous events to happen.

The Big Flood
Jim Schutze has told you all about this one. The Lewisville Dam, the one that helps keep millions of gallons of Trinity River water out of downtown and all other points near the river and south of Lewisville, might have some serious problems, no matter what the Army Corps of Engineers says. The Trinity River levees, proclaimed dangerous by a Corps study following Hurricane Katrina, were reclassified as safe, capable of withstanding the next 100,000 years of North Texas weather. The potential Trinity project, in the works for more than 20 years but still sorely lacking in results, might not help matters. Despite often being sold as being about flood control and a park, the project could lead to more levees being built in downtown Dallas. Levees that would be built downriver from downtown in order to support a potential Trinity toll road would, as Schutze has reported, "only increase flood risk for downtown by backing up and confining the river when it flooded." Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston has suggested that all the money the city has left from the initial round of bonds for the Trinity project be spent on flood control.

Don't say Schutze didn't warn you.
Don't say Schutze didn't warn you.
Jim Schutze

The Big Earthquake
Prior to 2008, there had been, depending on who one asked, either exactly one or exactly zero earthquakes observed in North Texas' recorded history. Since 2008, there have been hundreds. Earthquake "clusters" have popped up around Azle and Reno in Tarrant County and, most recently, the site of the old Texas Stadium in Irving. The Texas Railroad Commission insists that there is no evidence the quakes have been caused by anything man-made — like a certain resource extraction process that we dare not mention — and refused to shut down two wastewater disposal wells near Azle and Reno in 2015. Although the likelihood of a big tremor striking Texas is still small — the city puts Dallas' chances of being hit by a 5.0 quake at about 1-in-400, with decreasing likelihoods for larger events — multiple small quakes do decrease the long odds that one will occur. In a city where homes have not been built to withstand even moderately sized quakes, the big one would definitely be the big one. In that case, even cheap earthquake insurance won't do us any good. 

Small, but non-zero.
Small, but non-zero.
City of Dallas

The Big Meltdown
Even now, it would take a catastrophic, cascading failure, but the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System's massive unfunded liability could take down the city. As things sit, Dallas' uniformed pensioners are owed at least $1.5 billion more than is currently accounted for by their fund. Backed up by City Attorney Warren Ernst, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has claimed that the city and its taxpayers aren't on the hook for the cash, however much it turns out to be. The pension's counsel, Josh Mond, says the opposite is true and we've been unable to find anyone independent of the two parties to even take a shot at guessing who's right. The answer to the who's on the hook question will likely be determined in court, thanks to a 2003 provision added to the Texas Constitution that protects benefits for public pensioners. If the first court to rule on the still untested provision says that Dallas is responsible, and then the pension fund — underwater mostly because of the "creative" investments of its former director Richard Tettamant and a, perhaps, overly generousness deferred retirement benefits plan — goes belly up, Dallas could face a crisis like the one currently being experienced in Chicago. Or Detroit.   

The Big Stupid
The longest of the long shots is also the stupidest, but it must be acknowledged, especially after The Dallas Morning News decided to give the view equal time last week. Parents not vaccinating their kids is not only dangerous for their kids, it's dangerous for all of us. Even ultra-conservative radio yakker Mark Davis finds the North Texas anti-vaxx crowd wacky, but the proud warriors fight on, jeopardizing the herd immunity of kids all over North Texas. A Plano school just went through a measles scare. In 2013, a DFW mega-church went through a measles outbreak of its own when parents took ministers' advice not to vaccinate their kids. It won't happen any time soon, but as long as Texas allows parents to easily opt out of providing essential medical care for their kids before sending them off to public schools, the state and Dallas risk a full-scale breakdown in the public health advances that have prevented countless Americans, Texans and Dallasites from dying from stuff they shouldn't be dying from as collective immunity deteriorates.

"I think that it would be a very good thing for us to have the elimination of non-medical exemptions. From my point of view, it's very clear that, if you're a data-driven person and you're evidence based in your outlook, that the benefits of vaccination are overwhelming. If we stop doing what we need to be doing, then we have unnecessary outbreaks of preventable diseases that can kill kids," Dr. Jason Terk, the then-president of the Texas Pediatrics Society, told the Observer in 2015.

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