Fixing the Trinity Levees: Don't Worry, Just Trust City Hall

Trust them: Jim Schutze took the week off from his Trinity "Oh, shit, here comes the water" beat this week, but our river problems keep rolling, so it's up to Buzz to fill Schutze's Wellies.

Last week, Schutze got his hands on some internal documents from the local office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the Trinity levee system that protects downtown. The documents suggested that city officials fibbed in their claims about the state of the levee repairs. The docs also revealed that the corps had taken pains to ensure that its assessment of the city's repair plan — which is being created by a city-hired, private engineering firm — did not appear to endorse the plan.

To Schutze's cynical mind (he's like a father to Buzz), the corps' move made it seem like maybe the city's plan ... well ... sucked.


Trinity River

This is important, because property owners near the river don't want to find themselves paddling away from their homes. Also, the city's repair plan will help determine how the Federal Emergency Management Agency draws the new maps that decide whether property owners in a big chunk of Dallas will be required to get pricey flood insurance from FEMA. Unless the city persuades FEMA that the levees will protect against the sort of flood that has a 1 percent chance of happening in any year, that map could get ugly.

After Schutze's column came out, the corps put up an online "fact sheet" explaining that FEMA doesn't require the corps' blessing in "certifying" the levees for accreditation in the National Flood Insurance Program. Instead, FEMA will rely on the city engineer's certification.

The question is: Why? It was a corps inspection that started this whole convoluted process, yet FEMA's going to rely on an engineer hired by Dallas? Has anyone in Washington ever been to City Hall? And has FEMA ever accredited a levee system that the corps didn't endorse?

Yes, it has, a FEMA spokesman says. FEMA has its own rules for what's needed to accredit levees for the insurance program. The corps has its own standards, and depending on the project, those don't necessarily move lockstep with FEMA regulations. We just gotta trust the city, the engineer and FEMA. Feel better?

The FEMA official did note that engineers are not prone to fudging facts when it comes to certifying levees, since engineering firms don't want to go out of business.

Then again, we forgot to ask the guy if he'd ever been to Dallas.

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