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?