Dallas City Fathers And The Army Corps Of Engineers Don't Speak The Same Language When It Comes To the Levees.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is trying in roundabout ways to make it obvious that it is no longer City Hall's girlfriend. Sadly, some people at City Hall—notably City Councilman Dave Neumann and our mayor—never learned girlfriend-speak.
Sam Merten

So I'm at City Hall watching the city council last week, and out of the blue—I don't know where it comes from, just craziness—I have this thought. I know why Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and City Councilman Dave Neumann don't get it.

Seriously. It was a lightning bolt. Neither one of them ever learned girlfriend-speak.

This is probably sexist, and I know it's terribly age-inappropriate. But it's an important fact. Some guys learn how to speak girlfriend. Some guys don't.


Mayor Tom Leppert

That's why this mess about the levees along the Trinity River is proving to be so personally difficult for Leppert and for Neumann, who is chairman of the city council's Trinity River Committee.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal government agency in charge of the levees, has been talking to them in girlfriend: "Oh, I'd love to, but I'm going to be out of town. Yeah, I did say my mom was going to be in town. She's going to be in town, and I'm going to be out of town."

They never say, "I am dumping you." But after the second or third lame excuse, you are supposed to be able to figure it out. It's called Life I.Q.

And just so I can go home at night after this column appears, I should hasten to add that boyfriends are no better at dumping girls honestly. If anything, their excuses tend to be lamer, as in, "I can't, because I have to wash my truck."

The point is, if you are the dump-ee, you need to do yourself and everybody else a favor by knowing that you are the dump-ee, and that the deed is done. Leppert and Neumann are like the guy standing in the lobby of the girls dorm with a box of chocolates under his arm shouting, "What are you doing with him? I'm the one you're going steady with!"

All of a sudden, sitting there in the council chamber, I felt embarrassed for them.

At the council meeting, Leppert and Neumann started riffing—again! for the third time in three days—about how furious they are with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They say the corps keeps changing the rules on them, coming up with new requirements that delay repairs to the levee system. The levees are supposed to protect the city from flooding.

The levee problem is a huge deal. The city is up against a deadline next year. If the levees can't be fixed by then, an official notice will go out telling people that a major swath of the city, including some of the most valuable buildings downtown and near downtown, are subject to being wiped out in future floods.

Who knew?

Not the people who built the buildings. Not the people who put up the money to build the buildings. Not the people who own them now. They were told their investments were safe. For years the corps told everybody that the Trinity River levees were not only OK but excellent.

But then you have to remember: The corps is in the levee-building business. They sell levees. The corps is a half-civilian offshoot of the Army. It has to go out and drum up business.

The corps telling you that the levees they just sold you are in excellent shape is like a salesman telling you that the car he just sold you is excellent. The big wake-up would be if he said anything different.

But after Katrina, the rules changed. Congress directed the corps to go out, survey all of the nation's flood control levees and then come back and tell the truth about them.

So in April 2009, the corps came back to Dallas and said the levees along the Trinity River were not excellent any more. Actually, not good. In fact, no good. Specifically, worthless.

Without some kind of major repair or even replacement, according to the corps, the levees along the Trinity cannot be counted on to protect people from a catastrophic flood. Actually, even from a big flood. In fact, from any flood.


Imagine the salesman calling you up and saying, "Actually, the car I sold you is going to kill you."

People are upset. No wonder.

So now it's a question of what must be done to fix the levees before a deadline next year when new flood-danger maps will be issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). If the new FEMA maps show a third of the city as a mud-sucking river-bottom, watch out for fallout. Fellows like Leppert and Neumann could be in for some bad tar and feathers.

Why them specifically? Of everybody and anybody currently at City Hall, those two individuals are the poster children for everything wrong in this picture. They didn't make the levees fall apart, but they have been cheerleaders for putting up all kinds of baubles and bangles along the levees without first asking or caring if the levees themselves were safe. And now we know the levees are not safe. But Leppert and Neumann continue to whine about how the safety problem is getting in the way of the baubles and bangles.


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.

I think most of us out here in the peanut gallery get it. We've been there. We can read the smoke signals. We know the Trinity River Project by now is milk left too long in the refrigerator, blinky in the bottle. Ever since Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers has been trying to turn the city around, but without saying any of it right out loud.

Can't someone take Leppert and Neumann aside and give them the news that the corps is just not their girlfriend anymore? I can't do it, because I worry that I might be insensitive. I would probably waggle two fingers behind my head to imitate horns—the Shakespearean symbol for cuckoldry—which no one would ever get. Except you, right?

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