Life's Cheap. Levees Aren't.

God may still be in his or her heaven. I'm not up on that. But I think he's about to vacate the regional headquarters of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Since the 19th century we Americans have believed that engineers are just a little bit better at building stuff than the deity, and engineers have benefited from our belief.

Now it's not a benefit. Climate change is causing more and worse weather disasters, wrecking property, killing people and beating hell out of dams and levees all over the country. It's only going to get worse, and the corps and other federal agencies would like to get the bull's eye off their backs.

For the last week I have been looking at internal agency documents and congressional testimony indicating that the corps wants out of the God business. It can no longer provide the level of flood protection people used to think it could, and Dallas may be one of the first places to get the bad news.

I got onto this a week ago after one of those bizarre backroom briefings at City Hall where people get up in front of projector screens like Chinese shadow puppets and speak in tongues. Assistant City Manager Jill A. Jordan was telling the Trinity River committee of the city council that the city may get off cheaper because of changes the corps has made to various plans for fixing the city's decrepit levee system.

But that's where things went blinky. Part of our savings, she said, may come from a new "risk assessment" plan being developed by the corps. Say what? How does a different "risk assessment plan" make it cheaper to fix the levees?

City council member Scott Griggs asked Jordan a series of questions based on the same theme: Did she mean that the corps was going to find out if we would accept a cheaper and less safe fix? She sort of wouldn't admit that, but she sort of did admit it.

"The federal government has challenges to come up with flood control funds," she said. "There is only so much money that we [the city] have for projects. There's just not an unlimited supply of money for either of us."

Yeah. So cheaper. A cheaper fix. Right?

But she wouldn't say that, and the Corps of Engineers people at the briefing wouldn't say it either. So I came back to the office, poured a figurative bucket of ice water over my head and dove in. What were they talking about? Was it like pig Latin? Could I figure it out?

First of all, Rick Perry may think climate change is a conspiracy, but scientists and the insurance industry think otherwise. Last July, Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois, told a Senate subcommittee hearing that since 1980 the country has experienced a dramatic rise in every kind of extreme weather — heat waves, cold waves, storms, floods and droughts.

"The wetter is getting wetter, and the drier is getting drier," he said. Man's influence on these events is so pervasive and powerful, he testified, that "nothing is entirely natural any more."

Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, told the same subcommittee that mankind keeps making things even worse by rushing into the most disaster-prone areas. As soon as the government builds a levee or a dam, people think it's OK to put up expensive buildings made with flimsy materials.

In measuring his industry's losses, Nutter said, "The fundamental driver is the increase in the number of people living in areas vulnerable to natural catastrophes, the increase in property values and the vulnerability of the construction materials and technology."

Other witnesses told the committee that the federal flood insurance program in only the last few years has plunged into debt to the tune of more than $17 billion, far more than it can ever earn back from premiums.

Guess what that means, fellow taxpayer. You and I eat it. The government either covers the debt out of tax revenues or allows the national flood insurance program to lapse.

Things aren't good.

In March 2010, the corps held a workshop on levee safety in Washington. A document summarizing the proceedings states that the attendees were broadly in agreement on one particular factor that I believe had to do with you and me.

"The groups acknowledged," the document states, "that in general, the public is 'risk ignorant.'"

Ouch. Risk ignorant? Well, let's think about it. The people at this workshop were hearing the same kinds of presentations the congressional subcommittee would hear a year later — much more severe weather, more disasters, more people at risk, insurance taking a beating, outdated infrastructure, dwindling financial resources.

Were we aware of all that stuff? I think not, fellow traveler. In the terms they were speaking in, I think we may be, in fact, risk ignorant.

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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