Harvey taught Houston that the things it had been told before about flood safety simply were not true.EXPAND
Harvey taught Houston that the things it had been told before about flood safety simply were not true.
U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West

Harvey Is Scaring Houston Straight on Flood Safety, but Dallas May Take Longer

Post-Harvey, Houston already wants to carry out a truth and reconciliation process about flood safety. The lesson from Harvey was clear: No matter what the official public line may have been on flood safety before Harvey, Houston was not safe.

Dallas is in the same boat, but our boat may be leakier. Dallas hasn’t been merely passive about flood safety. Our city leaders for the last two decades have worked actively, aggressively and successfully to severely undercut and reduce flood safety measures.

The old elite’s doomed and dangerous Trinity toll road project, now dead (thank goodness), was only the poster child for a culture of anti-preparedness. Dallas used its congressional delegation to jawbone federal officials into reducing protections because the people pulling the puppet-strings here saw preparedness as a bar to quick, no-holds-barred real estate development.

Don’t think for a minute Houston is less safe than we are because it’s near the ocean. Dallas is unsafe because it’s near idiots. While Houston cranks up a serious analysis of its preparedness in the age of the new mega-disasters, we need to find out how much harm has been done to us by mega-morons.

Harris County, where Houston is, has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to re-examine the basic underlying premise of preparedness there. Flood safety in Houston is based on the same premise that underlies our system, called “detention.” The idea was simple. Federal agencies would come in with a lot of federal money and build big reservoirs to hold rainwater runoff. The reservoirs would hold the runoff during a big storm. After the storm, the excess water would be drained off in a safe release. Meanwhile, people could go wakeboarding.

The key phrase there is “safe release.” As we saw in Houston during Harvey, there was no such thing as a safe release. Two big reservoirs built decades ago, now crowded on all sides and cheek-by-jowl with residential development, began to overflow.

At that point, water had to be released, or the overflow pressure could have torn out the earthen dams, wreaking sudden, catastrophic havoc. But the only available drainage channel was Buffalo Bayou, already flooded and jammed on both sides, threading its way through dense urban development. So the releases from the reservoirs made things worse.

We have the same system, only more dangerous. If only one of our immense regional reservoirs fails, the toll in human lives would be staggering. As a special project in The Dallas Morning News by George Getschow revealed two years ago, a failure of the aged and decaying Lake Lewisville Dam would put 431,000 lives in immediate jeopardy.

An upstream dam failure at any of the three major reservoirs that flow directly into downtown Dallas must be stacked against the old and rickety system of flood safety levees along the Trinity River through downtown. In 2009, the Corps of Engineers rated that entire levee system as “unacceptable,” the most stupidly abused term in contemporary public double-speak. What they really meant was, “no good,” “unsafe,” “won’t do the job,” “grab your water-wings and paddle as fast as you can.”

The system was deemed safe in the 1950s when it was built. It was found unsafe in 2009 because it was old and decayed and had way more people and buildings in its way if it ever gave way.

The cost of making the Dallas levee system safe again was estimated in the $150 million to $200 million range in 2009. That was a totally untested number that many serious observers at the time took to be a politically inspired lowball.

But even that much money was considered way too much by the people running City Hall at the time. They wanted to put a new expressway right down the gullet of the levee system, to be built out between the levees where all that new concrete would put even greater hydraulic stress and strain on the levees during a flood.

Two years later, then City Manager Mary Suhm announced that the levee problem had been solved. The repairs would cost only $20 million to $30 million. Those nervous Nellies in Washington had overestimated the problem in the first place, and tough old Dallas had jawboned them back into reality.

The Trinity toll road project may be dead, at last, but it leaves behind a legacy of public dishonesty about flood control that still has the power to do us harm.
The Trinity toll road project may be dead, at last, but it leaves behind a legacy of public dishonesty about flood control that still has the power to do us harm.
Tracie Louck

But that was not at all what happened. In fact, Dallas forced the feds to release it from even the inadequate previous federal flood safety requirements. After 2009, The Corps of Engineers faced a national revolt of cities whose levees it had found to be “unacceptable.” Dallas joined several of those cities in a national lobbying campaign to force the Corps to back off its findings. Threatened with decimation of its budget by Congress, the Corps did back off, but it did so semi-honorably. The Corps never said the levee systems it had already pronounced unacceptable were suddenly acceptable again.

Instead, the Corps did two things. First, it changed its rating system so that instead of being based on a worst case scenario, the new ratings were based on a likely case scenario. Instead of telling communities, “Here’s what happens if you get unusually slammed,” it started saying, “Here is what will happen if you just get normally slammed.”

Much less well reported was the second amendment to previous Corps policy. Since cities and Congress were threatening the Corps’ existence over its flood safety warnings, the Corps decided to back out partway from the warnings business. The new posture could be summed up as “OK, warn yourselves, morons.”

Well, it was more subtle than that. The Corps notified cities that it could no longer protect them all by itself and that therefore it was no longer going to accept responsibility for the political decisions cities made for themselves about flood safety.

I sort of couldn’t believe it when I first read the new policy. Just to make sure I got it, I wrote to Eric Halpin, who was the Corps of Engineers official in the Pentagon in charge of dam and levee safety. I sent him an email in which I asked, "Are you getting ready to tell people that you cannot protect them absolutely and forever and that they must share significantly in the responsibility for their own safety?"

Halpin wrote back right away: “Statement is very close to our position in the Corps regarding flood risk.”

In 2011, when Suhm told the city that everything was fixed and the needed repairs were down to a 10th of the cost or less, she did not tell the city the following two things. First, Dallas City Hall had just taken part in a successful national lobbying effort to force the Corps to significantly soften its rating system for flood control levees and dams. Nor did Suhm tell the city that the lobbying effort also had forced the Corps to back out of its responsibility for flood safety and that now a more ultimate responsibility rested on the shoulders of the city itself. Suhm just said it was all fixed; the feds were gone with their tails between their legs; now we could build our toll road.

And by the way, this scenario with the Corps and the levees was only one of several significant instances in which Dallas City Hall successfully maneuvered to reduce the level of regulation on the Trinity in order to get the toll road built. In 2010, then U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison stuck a little-noticed “rider” on a Senate defense appropriation bill that exempted the Trinity River from a broad swath of federal environmental protection law.

Just as with the later lobbying effort to knock down the federal flood safety standards, the sales pitch for Hutchison’s legislative sleight of hand was that those nosy feds had been getting in the way of our road, so we lassoed 'em right where the sun don’t shine.

In reading about Harris County’s request to the Corps for a revisiting of the Houston flood safety system, I noticed a small irony. For its story, the Houston Chronicle interviewed Jim Blackburn, a lawyer in Houston who has an international reputation on environmental issues. Rather than expressing enthusiasm for the idea, Blackburn was decidedly skeptical. When I read it, I kind of smiled to myself and thought, “Yeah, and I know why.”

The Chronicle reported that Blackburn thought “a Corps review would not be objective, given the ties between the agencies,” referring, I assume, to ties between the Corps and local officials in Houston. I’m sure his experience in these matters is deep and broad across the nation, but I know that one of the places where he learned his lesson was Dallas.

Blackburn was hired early on in the fight against the Trinity toll road and did brilliant work, even hiring his own hydraulic engineer to tease apart a phony algorithm the Corps and City Hall were using to make the toll road look safe when it wasn’t. But then he and the rest of us watched while mayors, city councils, city managers, state legislators, an entire congressional delegation and a passel of political judges conspired to defeat the truth, betray public safety and get that road built no matter what.

The old elite in Dallas worked long and hard and spent untold sums digging us into a deep and dangerous hole on flood safety. It’s going to take new leadership and a whole new day at City Hall to get us out of it.

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