Flood Safety in America and Here Is Sort of an Exercise in Mass Self-Delusion

This latest round of catastrophic flooding on the Mississippi River and its tributaries is trying to tell us something: Don’t believe a single thing our local or federal officials tell us about flood safety.

But if we were capable of learning that lesson, we wouldn’t be where we are right now. The problem’s not so much the flood water. It’s our heads.

Last week flood waters surged over levees on the Mississippi River, driving residents from their homes in West Alton, Missouri, upriver from St. Louis near the convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Flood danger on that part of the river supposedly was reduced following terrible floods in 1993. More than 1,000 residents were bought out of flood-prone properties, and levees on the Mississippi were armored.

Later last week 500-plus people near Olive Branch, Illinois, downriver from St. Louis, were driven from their homes when floodwaters tore down the Len Small Levee, another major flood safety project that didn’t do its job.

Or did do its job, depending on which official is doing the talking. It did its job. And then it didn’t.

Last month after The Dallas Morning News published a story by journalism professor George Getschow revealing serious weaknesses in the Lewisville Dam on the Trinity River above Dallas, officials at the Fort Worth District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offered a frosty retort, assuring reporters that the dam was “doing its job.”

Yes. Just as your heart does its job until you have a heart attack, or a bridge does its job until it collapses. It’s the not-doing-its-job-any-more part that concerns.

Timothy MacAllister, chief of operations for the Fort Worth District of the Corps, assured reporters last month that work would be underway by this month to repair the problems Getschow had exposed. He said only the most extreme rain event could threaten the dam in its current condition.

“It would have to be something we’ve never seen before,” he said. “It would be biblical.”

But the same continental rain patterns driving the flooding on the Mississippi last week have kept all the big Corps-built lakes around Dallas so close to over-brimming that the Corps has been unable to begin work on the Lewisville Dam repairs as promised. So what does that make the weather patterns we are seeing now? Sub-biblical?

The Corps of Engineers is basically a public construction company whose entire and only budget comes from construction projects. No projects, no Corps. By law it must carry out almost all of those projects in concert with local governments acting as its partners. No local partners, no Corps. Like any company, the Corps likes to keep its clients happy.

After the catastrophic damage caused by levee failures in New Orleans in 2005, Dallas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, helped lead a push to order the Corps to reexamine the safety of all of the nation’s levees. A subsequent scathing report found almost 150 dangerous levees in the nation, including the levee system along the Trinity River through downtown Dallas.
The levees in Dallas were found to be insufficient to provide even the minimum level of flood safety required by federal flood insurance. But that finding flew in the face of local ambitions.

Far from wanting to stop in its go-go tracks and devote major local resources to rebuilding the levees, Dallas officials were pushing a project to build a major new highway in the flood zone between the levees, which could only make flood safety more complicated. The finding that the Trinity River levees were unsafe was a serious setback.

Dallas joined a consortium of other cities facing similar levee problems in a lobbying effort: Their aim was to persuade congress to get the Corps off their backs. It worked. The Corps obligingly engaged in an entirely desk-bound mathematical and philosophical “reassessment of risk” by which it found that the Trinity River levees, far from being unsafe, are safe for the next 100,000 years.

Yes, 100,000 years. We humans don’t even know for sure how many noses we’ll have on our faces 100,000 years from now, but the Corps knows the Trinity River levees will still be standing. Amazing. And so recently they had said the same levees were junk!

A year after calling for the levee review, by the way, Congresswoman Johnson in 2010 bragged in a press release that she had successfully pushed through a rider on an appropriations act exempting the Trinity River from some of the few federal rules still governing it. Johnson alone couldn’t get the Trinity totally out from under all the laws, but Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison took care of most of that for her, sticking a rider on a defense spending bill that exempted Dallas and its river from most of the remaining regulations that Johnson hadn’t been able to get rid of.

So put yourself in the position of the Corps. The Corps is a proud old agency — older than the nation, in fact, having designed earthworks impregnable to British cannons at Breed’s Hill, later called Bunker Hill, in the Revolutionary War. You only continue to exist if your local partners love you.

After Katrina your local partners tell you: “Go check the levees, see if they’re safe.” You do. You tell them, “They are not safe.”

Your local partners say, “What? This is terrible. Our share of the fix will cost us way too much money. We want to build highways and real estate developments, not bigger levees. Stop telling us our levees are dangerous. Tell us our levees are safe, or we won’t love you any more.”

You do what they say. You tell them, “The levees are safe.”

Now here is the really scary part: They believe you.

So who’s crazy here?