Dear Corps of Engineers: Save the Fancy Talk and Just Tell Us If We Should Build an Ark

All right, class, today our lesson is: "Logical Wormholes and Semantic Corkscrews: Translating the Language of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Into More or Less Plain English, or, You Know, Spanish. Whatever. Language How People Talk."

But first an ironclad guarantee. This is not a homework assignment. There will be no quiz. While reading this material you are free to chew gum, text, have sex or just bail on the whole thing. It's a damn blog item. It's not supposed to be a spinal tap.

Two weeks ago I wrote a column about some documents leaked to me from inside the Corps of Engineers. For those of you who are new to this topic, the word corps, you will notice, does not have an "e" on the end of it. It means a branch of the armed forces.

The Corps of Engineers is part of the Army, and it is responsible for all of the big dams and levees used to control floods in this country. If you want to know why, ask a professor. To me, it's just how it is.

In 2009, the Corps of Engineers ruled that the levees that protect downtown Dallas from catastrophic flooding during our twice-a-year rainy seasons were no good. They didn't protect the city from squat.

The federal government publishes maps that show whether your property is subject to catastrophic flooding. If it is, you have to buy flood insurance, and your property is worth less than property not threatened by floods.

Two things: The corps inspects the levees, but the city has to keep them up and fix them if they go bad. It's a deal they agreed to years ago by contract, and it's how things are done all over the nation.

Back when the government still thought the Dallas levees were good, the government's flood maps showed a huge chunk of Dallas as being safe because of the levees. No insurance required. As soon as the corps said the levees were no good, the government, through its Federal Emergency Management Agency, said it was going to have to draw new maps.

They haven't done that yet. They're working on it. The city, meanwhile, is trying to fix the levees before that happens.

Otherwise, it's not just that people will have to get insurance. If the new maps say all that land is no longer safe, the property on that land will be worth much less, and the city would receive less in taxes. That would be a big money-loser for the city.

So the city has a plan to fix the levees. The city staff has told the city council that they're sure the corps will like the plan and will give it the OK.

So, back to my leaked documents. They show that the technical staff of the corps does not like the city's fix-it plans. In fact, some months ago the staff insisted that corps management allow them to enter into the official internal corps record a disclaimer saying that the corps in no way endorses the city's planned repairs as a way to restore the levees to safety.

In addition, the corps' technical staff insisted on going back through a document called an environmental assessment to strip out any language endorsing the city's methods for restoring levee safety.

I asked the corps if it was true those things had been done. They agreed that the disclaimer from my documents was accurate. They agreed that the environmental assessment had been changed, although they did not specify exactly how.

But in their answer to me the corps suggested it was never their job anyway to make the sign of the cross over the proposed fixes. They said that was the job of the consulting engineer hired by the city: "The city's consultant is responsible for certifying the 100-year plan meets FEMA standards for the National Flood Insurance Program," they told me.

I asked this: If it was never your intention to endorse the fixes, why did you have to enter a disclaimer into your own record stating explicitly that you did not endorse the fixes and why did you have to modify the other document to make sure you took out any language that might appear to endorse those fixes?

I have never received an answer to those questions. But a few days after I asked them, the corps published a new "fact sheet" -- sort of a bulletin or circular -- titled "Who certifies levees in Dallas?"

All right, Alice, gather your skirts. We're about to jump down the hole. Here we go.

The circular says the whole thing here is about understanding three different terms -- "rate," "certify" and "accredit." They say you have to understand all three of these terms in order to get it. If you can't prove that you understand them, please get away from the microphone.

Here is my advice. Do not understand these terms. At all. Just don't do it. Refuse to understand these terms. These terms are little pills that will make you swell up to the size of a giant and then shrink down to the size of an ant and see talking caterpillars and all kinds of weird shit.

How about we do this instead? Let's just speak English.

The corps fact sheet agrees that in 2009 the corps said the levees were no good. They agree more specifically that they "withdrew support from a 2006 letter" that had said the levees were great.

Please don't ask me how you withdraw support from a letter. Hold it up in the air and then let it fall slowly down into the trash can? I don't know. But they agree that they did something with this letter that caused FEMA to "de-accredit" the levees. Shoot, I said we weren't going to use those words.

FEMA, when it saw that the corps had dropped its letter into the trash can, said it was going to have to draw all new maps as a result.

So keep that in mind. The corps acted first. FEMA reacted. That's the causal chain. Corps hits FEMA lever with hammer. FEMA lever pops up.

But then the corps' fact sheet follows with this line that really makes no sense at all. It says: "But that action alone did not change any insurance rates, mandates or rate maps under the National Flood Insurance Program."

No. Of course not. That's what's being done now. It takes time. They have to draw new maps. They have to go out and survey stuff and say, "What's going to flood if the levees are no good?"

What the corps is saying is sort of like this: You get in a wreck, and the cops give the other guy the ticket. The corps statement is like saying, "But that ticket did nothing to determine the amount the other guy's insurance would have to pay you for your car."

Yes, Sherlock, we already know that. There's a process. But we also remember that the dropping of the letter into the trash can is what set the process in motion. Sorry, you clever corps devils, but you haven't put us to sleep on that one just yet.

The corps' fact sheet also makes a big deal out of the fact that the city has to get umm-umm-ification for the levees. It's a word I wasn't going to use. OK, shoot. Certify. The fact sheet says: "The City of Dallas is responsible for obtaining certification of the levees."

That means they have to get their own engineer to give them a guarantee that the repairs, once built, are good. So what is their own engineer going to say otherwise? "No, I actually told you to do something that's no good?"

And good for what? Who rules that the repairs will restore the levees to safety? The city's own engineer? I don't hardly think so. The city's own engineers have been saying the levees were T-Tom-terrific for decades. If I manufacture a jet fighter plane for the military, do I get to call them up and say, "The product has passed my own inspection, so send me the damn check?"

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a legislatively mandated and contractual obligation to inspect the levee system and rule whether it's safe or not. I don't give a damn if they certify, rate, accredit or passionately embrace the city's proposed levee repairs: They have to do something. They have to undo the thing they did that started all this off in the first place.

They have to reach back into the trash can and lift up the letter over their heads. With snare drums and bugles, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chorus has to sing, "We hereby resupport the letter." Or something. They have to work the causal chain back the other direction.

By not answering my questions and instead putting out all of this Las Vegas magic-show mumbo-jumbo, they are trying somehow to Houdini themselves out of the causal chain. They don't want to answer the question: Why did you put that disclaimer in your own record and why did you modify the environmental assessment to remove language endorsing the city's proposed repairs?

What does their "fact sheet" really say? I don't know. It's all misdirection, sort of like, "Wow, look up there, is that a flying saucer?"

Quick, quick, give me definitions for rate, certify and accredit! No, sorry, you got it wrong. We have to drown you now.

I said you could have sex while reading this. I hope you did. Otherwise, the whole thing's kind of a toothache, isn't it? Tell me about it.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze