Dallas May Get Soaked by Soaring Insurance Premiums if the City Keeps Dawdling on Fixing the Levees
Seven hundred percent. That's the magic number.
In a mile-deep swath running from downtown Dallas six miles west to the Walton Walker Expressway, north to Texas Stadium and in a brood loop around South Dallas, the risk of flood disaster from the Trinity River—at least as reflected in insurance rates—is 700 percent worse than people thought it was.
That's what you're not hearing from Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, from signature bridge boosters like city council members Dave Neumann and Ron Natinsky or from the editorial and news columns of The Dallas Morning News. All they want to talk about is how important it is to build that toll road and finish those signature bridges.
Dallas is covered by a federal law that says Washington will rebuild the levees if the levees are destroyed in a flood. But because of the city's negligence in maintaining the levees, we're right on the cusp of losing that coverage. That would mean if the levees were lost, Dallas would have to pay the entire bill itself.
So if the flood that's 700 percent more likely than we thought it was does take place and does knock down the levees or some stretch of them, we will be 100 percent more screwed than we thought we were.
According to a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the city of Dallas is responsible for maintaining the 22 miles of dirt berms or levees that prevent the Trinity River from flooding during the region's twice-annual monsoon seasons. Last year the Corps of Engineers declared that Dallas, over a long period of years, had allowed the levees to fall into such serious disrepair that the corps was forced to "de-certify" them.
What does that mean?
It means the corps had to make a legal determination that the Dallas levees are no longer capable of holding back what is called the "standard project flood"—the level of flooding the levees were built to hold back.
What does that mean?
If you have a federally guaranteed mortgage on your house, you are required to have flood insurance if you live in a high-risk flood zone. You are not required to have flood insurance if you live in a safe or low-risk area. If the levees do work—if the corps certifies them as safe—then the area they protect from flooding is considered safe from flooding. You don't have to have the insurance.
If the levees do not work—if the corps decertifies them—then all of a sudden you are in a high-risk area. You have to have flood insurance. If you don't get the flood insurance, your lender may foreclose on you for defaulting on a requirement of your mortgage agreement.
So where does 700 percent come from?
You can get flood insurance for a $250,000 house and $100,000 in contents for $348 a year in a safe area. In a high-risk area, that same insurance costs $2,647 a year. That's actually an increase of 760 percent, but I rounded it off to avoid sounding like an alarmist.
In conversations last week with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is in charge of flood-risk mapping, I came at last to a hard point of clarity. Flood insurance rates are actuarial calculations—highly educated guesses of what may happen in a region based on detailed studies and complex algorithms. Out of all comes a number reflecting one thing:
"It's risk," said Susie Webb of FEMA's Dallas and Fort Worth regional headquarters. "The whole point of this is risk-based," she said. "If people are living behind a levee that cannot withstand, they've got to know it.
"When a levee fails, a levee fails catastrophically," she said. "It's not a small event, as we have seen."
Therefore, she said, when FEMA learns that levees have been decertified by the corps, it begins going back over its flood-risk maps and changing the classifications of the land behind the levees, generally from safe to high-risk. Webb said the process can take a year or more.
But at some point that bell must toll. That's what she meant about risk. You can fudge this and finagle that for a while, but the risk is real. In fact it's real now. Already. It was real the minute the corps announced the decertification.
What kind of an area are we talking about?
Presumably that should be a knowable fact. The city could look at the current flood control maps and see with great precision exactly where the line runs—what blocks on what streets used to be deemed protected by the levees before the decertification and are not considered safe now.
This isn't yet about who has to buy insurance and when and how much. At least in legal terms, that day of reckoning could be a year off or more.
I'm not talking about that. This is what I'm talking about. The actuaries, with their powerful computers, deep data mines and academic credentials, say that the known risk behind the levees went up by a factor of 7.6 the minute we found out the levees were not safe.
So who is telling people in those areas about it? Who is notifying people of the risk, so that they may make up their own minds what to do about it?
I asked Webb of FEMA, and she referred me to the city. I think that makes sense. The city was responsible for keeping up the levees. It failed. This is City Hall's fault, and these are City Hall's citizens.
So I asked the city if it could provide a current map showing the areas that were considered protected before decertification and now may be changed to high-risk. Frank Librio, the chief spokesman for the city, checked on it for me. He e-mailed me back a few hours later and said, "No. FEMA has to do a special calculation to map those areas."
So much for a helping hand from Dallas City Hall. But, in fact, current FEMA flood maps are available right now online, and I spent some time last week perusing them.
I saw on the maps a vast area of West Dallas along the river from the Interstate 30 bridge almost six miles east to the Walton Walker Expressway—a swath a good mile broad—described as protected by the levees before the decertification.
On the downtown side, all of the new "design district" development is involved. The area under the gun looks like it will run from downtown to Texas Stadium in Irving, extending away from the river to a line beyond the Stemmons Expressway. The Anatole Hotel, Parkland Hospital and UT Southwestern Medical are a few of the major hits, not to mention the Trade Mart area.
An immense area of Old South Dallas, especially the Rochester Heights and Bon-Ton areas, will be affected.
But my looking at the maps and describing them here in broad terms is hardly definitive. Do you believe, as I do, that the city has an obligation to go to all of the property owners in that vast area and tell them right now what's going on?
Instead, Leppert and Neumann and Natinsky only pout about how this is interfering with their plans for signature bridges and a toll road along the river. Why do they have plans for anything at all except fixing those levees?
Last week Natinsky was quoted in the Morning News as complaining to a federal official in a meeting that, "We've got to be able to speed [the Trinity project] up. Otherwise, it may take a couple generations to make this a reality."
Here's your reality. If those levees break when they're brim-to-brim with water, it will create the biggest natural disaster nightmare this city has ever seen. That will take about four minutes, and the next couple generations will be busy repairing the damage.
The city says it has a plan to get the levees back up to par before the new FEMA flood maps ever hit the streets. But in recent weeks, city officials have begun to acknowledge that the repairs will be so expensive they will require a separate bond election. A bond election takes at least a year. The city has also sought an extension of a deadline at the end of this month for getting those repairs made.
So when you stack the need for a bond election and the need for an extension up against FEMA's remapping efforts, I would say we're in a pretty good horse race. In the meantime, just in case City Hall gets nosed out at the finish line and the new maps become law, it might be nice for city officials to come clean to all of the affected property owners about current risks and future stakes.
The deadline this month is another whole kettle of fish. Corps officials have told me the city has until March 31 to fix the levees or lose its coverage under the Public Law 8499 Federal Rehabilitation Assistance Program.
The city has applied for an extension of this deadline. If I had to bet, I'd say we'll get the extension. We hope. But right now we are looking down the barrel of two huge risks: 1) the potentially crushing financial risk of losing the reconstruction coverage, and 2) the real physical and mortal risk of flood because the city allowed the levees to go to hell in the first place.
Add this up. What we have is a failure of leadership and responsibility of truly staggering proportions. I can see why City Hall wouldn't be especially eager to own up.
What I do not get at all is the continuing jabbering and nattering about how this is interfering with the toll road and the signature bridges. Is somebody just crazy? Just totally whacked-out, running in the streets, mad-dog insane?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.