Report on Trinity Levees Shows A Failure of Dallas' Leadership

The crisis over the Dallas levee system represents a total failure of the traditional leadership class in this city. We can and will argue for years about why this happened, but the important thing now is that it did.

The mayor lied. City council members, with the exception of Angela Hunt, are automatons. The city staff says whatever it has to say to keep its pensions. You and I, dear taxpayer, are screwed.

Go ahead. Call me an extremist. Say I'm being polemical. Just wait. Wait until the truth about the recent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report on levee safety in Dallas begins to really dawn on the public.

This is a meltdown.

Buried in the bureaucratic lingo of the Army Corps of Engineers—disguised beneath sickening layers of sugar-coating by city staff—lies a single devastating reality: the dirt levees that we had been told would protect Dallas from a certain level of flooding won't even protect against floods one-eighth that level.

None of what the city's top leadership has told citizens about the river and flood control has been true. We are not safe. The area along the river is not prime for re-development. People are about to start having trouble even getting affordable flood insurance.

Mayor Tom Leppert's repeated promises two years ago that the Army Corps of Engineers had "signed off" on the Trinity River Project were not true. He knew those promises were not true.

The real truth lies beneath layers of inscrutable government-speak in a distressing report released last week by the Corps. Here's an example: "It is noted," the report says, "that the results of the inspection identify negative impacts during base flood (100-year event) conditions which would jeopardize performance of project features to reliably function as authorized."


Please. Allow me. For 10 years, in story after story, The Dallas Morning News has told the public that the levee system downtown protects the city against something called an "800-year flood." Let's not even try to figure out what the hell that means exactly. Think of Noah.

The important thing to pull out of the report is that the levee system won't even protect the city from something called a 100-year flood. Think of yourself in a rubber raft with your dog.

Here's an illustration: Say you bought an extended warranty for your new used car for 80,000 miles or eight years. But two years down the road when you've put 30,000 miles on the car, push comes to shove and you actually have to read the fine print. Oh, darn! It really only covered your car for 8,000 miles or one year. They were just kidding about the 80,000 miles. Hey, where's your sense of humor?

That's where we are.

I don't want to get lost in a tunnel of techno-speak. Let's go instead to one really great example that tells the whole story.

The Trinity River project, as you know, is a massive, multibillion-dollar local, state, federal and private venture to build highways, lakes and parks along the river where it flows through the center of the city. After the public voted in 1998 to fund the project, somebody came up with an elaborate add-on: somewhere at some table over too many gin and tonics it was decided we should build a series of make-believe suspension bridges up and down the river, all designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

Former Mayor Laura Miller called the bridges "eye candy."

Note to future: If mayor ever proposes tearing down existing freeway bridges to replace with make-believe suspension bridges by famous architect for "eye candy," get new mayor.

The first Calatrava bridge will cost $117 million. We ordered the steel for the bridge to be pre-fabricated in Italy. The first shipment of steel has now arrived by ship and is waiting to be picked up in a yard somewhere in the Port of Houston. Meanwhile, massive concrete piers for the deck of the bridge already have been set into the river bottom.

So what's wrong? Somehow, some way, in some kind of snafu that just isn't even comprehensible, apparently nobody ever went out to the river bottom to make sure its soil could hold this kind of structure without increasing flood risks.

What? You think I'm making this up? Believe me: I'm not that good.

Buried in the federal report is a scenario I can only describe as totally chilling and utterly hilarious at the same time. It's Die Hard meets The Further Perils of Laurel and Hardy.

This is something that occurred last year. The report says, "During the drilling of piers for Bent 6 (located 300' from the wet side toe of the west levee), the contractor reported that large quantities of sand in the formation liquefied even though slurry was being used to hold the excavation open."

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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

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