Is the Army Corps of Engineers Having Second Thoughts About the Trinity River Project?

I want you to see me here, sitting at my desk with my left hand clamped over my mouth. My right hand is twisting my own right ear. Painfully. What am I doing? Easy. I'm controlling myself.

I am about to talk about the Trinity River Project—our decades-old massive public works project along the river that runs through downtown Dallas, our very own "Big Dig"—but this time I am going to control myself.

I am not calling people morons. Some people might be morons. But I am too much of a gentleman to call them morons. Ouch! Had to twist my own ear pretty hard there.

Something more important is emerging, a new theme that may even have national implications. This all has to do with a little imbroglio that played out last week—something I bet you didn't even notice much. There was a bit of a spat over test borings in the levees along the river. The fight was between the North Texas Tollway Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a semi-autonomous division of the army headed by military officers but staffed by civilians.

The tollway people wanted to drill test bores in the levees downtown, and the Corps was giving them grief about how they were going to do it. It may sound petty, but it's actually life and death.

The levees, as you know, are the big dirt berms along both sides of the river that hold back the water when the river reaches flood stage in spring and fall. If you have driven over the Trinity when it's "up on the levees," then you know that the river becomes a vast lake at the foot of the downtown Dallas office district—the locus of the city's most expensive real estate and most dense population, at least during the day.

The floods caused in New Orleans in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina were "rising water" floods and took place almost entirely in residential areas. Here, the havoc wrought by failing levees could be even more devastating.

If the Trinity River levees were to break in downtown Dallas, a "rampaging flood" would strike downtown. Not rising water, this would be more like an inland tsunami aimed straight at the office and condo towers.

Whose fault would that be? Well, by law and contract the responsibility would belong to the City of Dallas. The Corps of Engineers builds the levees and has the right and duty to inspect them and demand certain standards of maintenance. But the levees belong to the city.

That's the law. But the Corps learned a bitter lesson after Katrina. The law doesn't mean squat in politics.

In December 2005, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, led by Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Joseph Leiberman, Turncoat of Connecti...Ooh! Ouch! Another rough twist of the ear on that one...Leiberman, independent Democrat of Connecticut, held hearings titled, "Hurricane Katrina: Who's in Charge of the New Orleans Levees?"

Officials from the Corps gave legally correct answers to the effect that local officials in New Orleans were responsible for the condition of the levees that failed. But virtually all of the local officials at the hearing struck pitiable poses, pointed long fingers of accusation at the Corps and said, "They did it."

That's the story that stuck—the political reality, if not the truth. New Orleans was the victim. Everybody else—especially Washington, especially the Corps—was the villain.

To this day, it is rare in public political discourse in this country for anybody to speak honestly about the culpability of local pols in New Orleans for the Katrina floods. The locals had pushed and pulled for a century to get the federal government to help them build cheap, badly designed levees so their real estate cousin-buddies could sell flood land to middle-class and poor people.

To be fair, before Katrina, there was moral ambiguity about the role of the Corps in flood-control projects. For most of the work it does, the Corps is required by law to recruit a "local partner"—some county or city or flood-control district that will kick in part of the money and then take ownership of the works when the job is done. The feeling in New Orleans—sincere, I'm sure—was that the Corps should have known better than to partner with New Orleans on some of those levee projects.

I can understand this logic best if I imagine it as a caption in a silent movie: An innocent lamb, tempted by her cruel seducer, chooses the path of her own destruction, little knowing what bitter disappointment she brings to the heart of her sainted mother.

New Orleans, an innocent lamb? Can you have an innocent lamb whose nickname is "The Big Easy"? Hey, all I know, it's how Katrina played out in the theater of public opinion.

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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