Premium Content: While We Argue Over a Word, a Risk Still Runs Through the City

Got a little e-mail debate going with Frank Librio, the spokesman for the city of Dallas, which I thought I should share with the Friends of Unfair Park. Always good to get a second opinion. Maybe people will agree with Frank that I have been unfair.

I have a column in this week's newspaper about the fact that flood risks in a large swath of the city are many multiples worse than people have been led to believe they are. My number is roughly 700 percent, based on flood insurance premiums.

Last year the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers informed Dallas that the Trinity River flood control levees don't work. They don't work because the city, which is responsible for keeping them up, has done a lousy job - such a lousy job that the Corps of Engineers, which re-inspected the nation's levees after Katrina, had to go through a process last march called "decertification" of the 23-mile-long Dallas levee system.

The decertification triggered a set of legal consequences. The first has to do with flood risk maps, which are maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The FEMA flood risk maps for Dallas show large areas of the city that have been deemed safe from flooding because they were believed to be protected by the levee system.

But now they are known not to protected by the levee system, because the Corps has ruled that the levees are not safe. The levees don't work. They can't be counted on.

Areas that have been deemed safe because of a levee that no longer works generally get reclassified by FEMA to "high risk," an action that brings its own set of triggers. All of the sudden, anybody in that area who has a federally guaranteed mortgage (everybody who has a mortgage) has to get flood insurance. There are some grandfathering mechanisms written into the law, mainly to soften the blow politically. But the real insurance rates - the actuarial numbers based on a calculation of real risk - go up 7.6 times. The rate to insure a property in a high risk area is more than 700 percent the rate in a safe area, based on the risk calculation.

One of the points FEMA made to me when I discussed this with them was that the risk is here now. The city and the Corps may negotiate for years on how the levees get repaired. The city has indicated it will need a separate bond election to raise the money needed for the levees, so that sounds like at least a year, maybe more.

But the risk is now. We're talking roughly about a swath a mile deep from downtown north to Texas Stadium, west to Walton Walker Expressway and all the way around South Dallas: The risk of catastrophic flooding in that entire area right now, if the actuaries are to be believed, is more than seven times worse than what people have been told.

Here is my issue: Mayor Tom Leppert and the city council have been up in Washington all week haranguing departmental people and the congressional delegation about how important it is to press ahead with the Trinity River toll road and the Calatrava signature bridges and so on. Meanwhile they keep dismissing the levee issue as a mean trick played on them by the Corps of Engineers.

When does somebody at City Hall go to hundreds of thousands of property owners and warn them that their risk of catastrophic flooding is seven times what they thought it was?

I looked at these maps online to make my calculation of the area involved, but I asked FEMA if they could give me a more precise description. They suggested it would be up to the city of Dallas and its flood control district management.

I asked Librio, the spokesman for the city, because city officials are very loathe to answer my questions personally on anything to do with the Trinity River. I have to go through Librio (which is OK, because he's very professional about it).

My assumption was that the city could look at its own flood control district maps, see what areas have been designated as protected by the levees and interpolate from that the areas that are no longer protected by the levees.

I put my question in simple broad terms, as I always do, for two reasons: 1) so that the question will be easily understood, and 2) to make it harder for some techie down the line to dodge the obvious import of the question with jargon and circumlocution.

There was one problem, however, with my question. When I posed it, I was still under the impression that the Corps had not yet officially notified FEMA of the decertification. Later in the week, after I had asked the question of Librio, FEMA told me it had been notified of the decertification a year ago. If anything, that makes the city's position worse, for not having warned people in all this time.

I asked Librio in an e-mail: "Does the city have a map of the areas that will be subject to new higher flood risk designations and requirements for flood insurance purchase after January 1 if the Corps de-certifies the levees to FEMA?"

Librio wrote back first, "Checking for you."

Then he wrote back, "No. FEMA has to do a special calculation to map those areas."

I wrote in my column this week: "So I asked the city if it could provide a current map showing the areas that were considered protected before de-certification and now may be changed to high-risk. Frank Librio, the chief spokesman for the city, checked on it for me. He e-mailed me back a few hours later and said, 'No. FEMA has to do a special calculation to map those areas.' "So much for a helping hand from Dallas City Hall."

Today Librio e-mailed me saying, "That's not exactly what you asked me ... see your e-mail below to me. You never asked me for a 'current' map -- you asked for a map of areas that could be subject to new higher risk designation. Indeed those maps are not available until FEMA conducts their remapping process. If you had asked me for the current mapping then I could have provided that to you."

I wrote him back: "Frank, I think you're being a bit semantic with me about this. These are different ways of describing exactly the same thing. If you have a current map showing areas protected by the levees, then this is a also map of areas subject to reclassification by FEMA, from safe to high risk, since the levee is currently (now, today, actually) decertified. What you have is a map of places not safely protected from flooding. What the city is not doing is notifying everybody in those areas that they are not safely protected from flooding, as they thought they were. If the city is not capable of this degree of interpretation of the maps, then the city is not capable of warning people of the risk to which they are now exposed. I hope that's not the case. But I'm happy to debate it more."

Librio has written me back, which we will count as the last word: "There is no need for any further debate. You asked for a map that clearly will not exist until after Jan. 1, 2011 -- it must be obvious that that map does not exist yet. In your story you said you asked for a current map -- that does not match your e-mail request to me..."

So there you have it. I think Librio is justified in pointing out that I did use the word "current" in the story and not in my question to him. But the bottom line is this: The risk is out there on the ground right now, today, and it's a huge change. A huge risk. And the city has not the lightest intention of warning anybody about it. Such a warning might poison the waters politically for the the silly, goofy, off-the-wall signature bridges and the crazy can't-be-funded Trinity River toll road on which Mayor Leppert has based his entire political career. And rather than risk losing those, the mayor and City Hall are going to roll the dice on the real risk facing the citizenry.

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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