It makes sense that a 212-year-old agency with a $50 billion annual budget would know how to talk. One of many sharp insights in the new Katrina documentary, The Big Uneasy, is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has got its line down cold.
Again and again in the film, various spokespersons for the corps say the same things about Katrina in the same tone of voice with the same eerie lack of facial expression: The corps builds the best works it can, given the politics, given the vagaries of nature, given the hand dealt it by that old blind whore, Lady Luck. If anything goes wrong, talk to her.
If we were in New Orleans, where an estimated 1,500 people died in 2005, we would hear the corps speak in this film and shudder to the marrow of our bones.
But we're not in New Orleans. We're here, in Dallas. So how should this film make us feel? Go and see it, please. I beg you. It premieres at the Texas Theatre on March 11. Everybody who is anybody with a stake in the Trinity River levee situation needs to get to Oak Cliff to see this thing. It speaks straight to our own situation.
I watched it at home on DVD. At several points I had to stop it and back it up to make sure I was seeing and hearing the right thing. One slide showed a geological profile of land beneath the levees that failed in New Orleans. When I froze the frame, I froze too.
The soil profile beneath the levees that failed in New Orleans is eerily similar to the soil profiles beneath the Trinity River levees. Both geological patterns are marked by a gray stratum of "flowing sand" reaching beneath the levees like a writhing snake.
That's what pulled the levees down in New Orleans. It wasn't a natural disaster or that other handy blasphemy, an act of God. The hurricane was the act of God. The flooding was a failure of engineering.
This film is crucial to Dallas right now because we are at a point in time before the beginning of the Katrina saga. We're in the prequel. We are just about to build new levees. We have to decide who we trust.
Before our 2007 referendum on building a new toll road out between the levees, the corps inspected the Trinity River levee system and determined it was essentially worthless. They sat on their findings until after we had voted, but in 2009 the corps "decertified" the Trinity levees, ruling that the levees could not provide even the minimum protection required by law of corps-built levees in urban places. So now the levees must be rebuilt.
If you go see this film and listen very closely to the defenses the Corps of Engineers offers for itself in New Orleans, you will see that the corps always argues from the same impregnable and infuriating logical fallacy: 1) We do our best to protect you. 2) But we operate within certain constraints. 3) The protection we offer you is the best that can be done. 4) Therefore you will be safe.
Tell that to the 1,500 dead.
The film, produced and directed by actor/writer Harry Shearer, is based on the report of an independent panel of experts released five years ago and on events and repercussions since then. In it, the corps bases its defense on the argument that it built the kind of levees in New Orleans that the law required and the budget allowed.
That's why the levees were built on sand, the corps says. That's why the metal sheet-pilings and other reinforcements weren't strong or deep enough. The authorizing law said the New Orleans levees "shall be designed for the most severe storm that is considered reasonably characteristic for the region." In the film, you will hear corps spokespersons say that Katrina was not reasonable. I kid you not.
They say it was too big a storm for them to consider, given the legislation and the money. In the film you will also see members of the independent review team pointing to physical evidence they say shows the corps is not telling the truth about the size of the storm: The water surges in New Orleans were not at all off the charts, according to the independent team.
But let's give the corps that one. Let's say the storm was bigger than what the law called on them to protect against. Imagine that we rate levee systems in categories from one to five. Let's say the law told the corps to build a No. 3 levee system.
The engineers look out in the Gulf one day and say to themselves, "Some day a No. 5 hurricane is going to come in here and kick this No. 3 levee system's ass." Do they build it anyway?
There was plenty of evidence that the levees they were building were not good enough. Dr. Ivor van Heerden at Louisiana State University had the scientific evidence showing the levees would fail and tried desperately to get decision-makers to listen to him for a period of some years before Katrina struck. He was ignored then, and for his trouble, he has been fired since by LSU.
One of the contractors working on the levees in New Orleans went to court and sued to force the corps to let him build a better levee, because he could see that the one they were having him build was a killer. He lost and built it the way the corps told him to.
When the independent report came out five years ago, I talked to one of its authors, Dr. Ed Link, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Maryland. I asked him if there is a point in a process like this when civil engineers should feel compelled to put their hands up and call a halt.
Should they say, look, we understand the legislation. We get the budget. But this work that we are called on to do here will kill people.
I asked Link if the engineers within the corps should have killed the New Orleans levee project rather than build it and see it fail later. Should they have said, "We're engineers, and we're not going to build something that won't work, so there's no project?"
"That's a huge question," Link said. "From an idealistic perspective, there has to be a moment like that somewhere in these processes."
But where in the process? Link told me that in the real world you never come to the kind of crisis or moment of clarity that would afford that sort of bold stance. These projects move along in nibbles, he said, bits and pieces, fits and starts, with small compromises here and tiny little allowances there. In the end you have 1,500 dead, but you're never going to find a single hand or decision to lay it to.
Why is this so important to Dallas? Stop for a minute and think about the processes going on here. Until they were absolutely forced to acknowledge the safety problems in the levee system, our recent former mayor and the entire city council with the exception of Angela Hunt only wanted to talk about building a highway out there. Years of effort and millions of dollars that could have been devoted to levee safety were squandered on that stupid road that now never will be built.
Two years ago a proposed minor-league ballpark next to the levees was scrapped because the money walked away, citing the risks posed by the bad levees. Only then, when they saw development deals withering, did the mayor and city council begin to take the levee problem seriously.
And how seriously? City Manager Mary Suhm keeps insisting the fix will be cheap enough to accomplish without a vote of the people. Pesky people anyway. She says City Hall can do it with hip-pocket money.
Here is why I think you have to see this movie. Listen to the corps—listen carefully, read their lips, pick up on the body language—and you will see that no hope is coming from that quarter. They are going to do what they are going to do.
They are going to build to the contract. You want levees that will kill you? You'll get levees that will kill you. They will move ahead, rack up pension points and keep their agency alive. Just be grateful you don't live in the old Soviet Union, where the whole country was the Corps of Engineers.
Then think about City Hall. What are your hopes there? Do you see anybody in that picture who will have the ability or the inclination to call a halt if things aren't right? Hunt tries. She tries.
I spoke with Shearer by phone after I watched his film. He talked about the fundamental wrongheadedness of having a quasi-military agency in charge of flood control in the first place.
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"Putting flood control inside the Department of Defense," he said, "ensures that the approach is going to be a war on water."
The film spends time on the flood-control philosophy of the Dutch, who, after all, are the experts. Called Leven Met Water (Living with Water), it's an approach that brings flood water out from behind massive fortifications and pours it across the land instead where it can soak into the ground. The approach is based on the idea that humans cannot defeat Mother Nature so instead we must compromise with her.
The irony here is that the system of parks and ponds proposed for the Trinity River bottoms would provide the perfect beginning point for this whole new approach. We're so close. And so far away.
Shearer told me he thinks only a president could leverage Congress and the bureaucracy to change America's basic approach to flood control. Go see his movie. See what you think.