Buried between the lines in a 246-page document released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers today is a significant national story about the future of flood control in American cities. I doubt very many reporters will dig it out. I'll give you the thumbnail sketch. You may wish I had kept my thumbs out of it.
This is still the post-Katrina era. The flooding in New Orleans changed everything with regard to the corps, which has always been the nation's main weapon against flooding. In New Orleans, now it is a letter of absolute near-religious faith that all of the blame for the devastation in 2005 went to the corps, none to News Orleans. You're not allowed to even whisper otherwise.
For example, I had a long conversation a month or so ago with John M. Barry, whose 1997 book Rising Tide is sort of the layman's Bible on Mississippi flooding. He's a big celeb in New Orleans now. I wanted to ask him about some things I was learning concerning the history of the role of the corps there, in particular a saga years ago in which New Orleans used the Louisiana congressional delegation to get the law changed to force the corps to build a bunch of flood-works inside the city that the corps didn't want to build. My question was whether those events gave New Orleans at least a contingent share in the culpability when those flood-works eventually failed.
Man. The question wasn't even out of my mouth all the way when he brought me up short. He said if I was to going to quote him on this at all, I was to make it plain that he felt all of the blame for Katrina went to the corps. He eventually confirmed the story about the Louisiana delegation getting the law changed, but he kept saying that if I quoted him it had better be to blame the corps.
I think it's part of our national religion now. We're not responsible for anything we do in our own communities. It's the federal government's job to give us everything we want from it. We don't want to pay taxes for it, and if it fails it's all on them.
So the story between the lines in today's big document from the corps concerning the Trinity River levee repairs is that they are protecting themselves. It's very gradual. It's subtle, but it's real, and it's a major deal.
You know already that the levees along the Trinity River flunked a major inspection by the corps in 2007 and were rated "unacceptable" in 2009, meaning that engineers have found they did not provide the minimum level of flood protection needed to avoid mandated federal flood insurance for property owners in the river's floodplain. The city is trying to get the levees fixed on the cheap before a deadline that would force everybody to buy the insurance. Worse, if we fail to meet the deadline, a huge swath of previously valuable land will become relatively worthless for dense development.
Here is what the corps says it did: "As a result of the overall 'Unacceptable' rating received in March 2009, the USACE withdrew its letter of support for continued certification of the Dallas Floodway System for the 100-year event Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) accreditation."
Let me explain that. The city has to hire an engineer who tells the city how to fix or maintain the levees. The engineer then "certifies" that the levees are safe. FEMA looks at the certification, studies it, and if they agree, they "accredit" the levees as safe, and everybody's cool. No flood insurance requirement, and you can develop to your heart's content.
That's a lot of responsibility on the engineer. I have to think the engineer is in deep doo-doo if he turns out to be wrong and the levees fail in a way he should have foreseen.
In 2006, the engineering firm was a local company called Half Associates Inc. They certified the levees. Then the corps came along behind them and gave them a "letter of support" for their certification.
No more. Them days is gone, pod-nuh. There will be no more letters of support. In this dense forest of verbiage, the tallest tree is this sentence: "USACE provides no opinion as to the efficacy of the modification for providing flood risk management benefits." What does that mean? It means it's up to the city to get its engineer to certify. It's up to FEMA to agree or disagree with the certification. The corps ain't in it.
In weeks of asking, I have found no one inside or outside the corps who can tell me exactly why the corps was ever in the certification business. It was always the city's responsibility to get an engineer to certify to FEMA that the levees were safe. Why did the corps ever give the engineer a letter of support in the first place?
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It was a significant thing. When FEMA decertified our levees in 2009, they said they were doing it because of the corps' withdrawal of the letter of support. They effectively said: "We were going on the corps' word, anyway, not Halff's. If the corps takes it back, we're out of there, too."
But why did the corps give the letter in the first place? About the best I can gather is that was then, this is now. That was before Katrina, when the corps was willing to bend over backwards to help its client cities get their projects done.
That's history. I suspect Katrina taught the corps a thing or two about what it could expect from the locals in terms of staying loyal when the water rises.
At any rate, the corps, according to this document, is withdrawing itself from the certification of the Dallas levee system, even though the levees here are officially a corps system. Now it's up to City Hall and FEMA -- another marriage made not in heaven.