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

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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.

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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