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Life's Cheap. Levees Aren't.

Jen Sorensen

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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