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Report on Trinity Levees Shows A Failure of Dallas' Leadership

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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.


Tom Leppert

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."

Translation: They are trying to drill a 7-foot diameter shaft down 90 feet to bedrock so they can pour concrete into it and form a pier or footing to support the bridge. They're pouring a mixture of water and bentonite (slurry) into the hole to try to keep the hole from caving in while they drill.

It's not working. Everything is turning to soup.

"The liquefaction was so extensive," the report says, "that it destabilized the area within a 20' radius of the 7-foot diameter pier. This area had to be backfilled in order to be able to support the drill."

They discover unexpectedly that they are on top of a deep, ancient layer of fine sand. The slurry isn't doing its job. Instead of stabilizing things, the slurry mixes with the sand and creates something like a giant Boston cream pie. An area 40 feet in diameter turns to goo beneath the drilling rig, which must be making the rig crew very nervous—"Ollie, I'm afraid!"—or at least a little seasick.

"When drilling resumed," the report says, "a casing was used to support the excavation. However, the bottom of the pier heaved and blew out."

Translation? They dump loads of dirt onto the area, trying to get it to calm down. They stick a huge pipe down there to try to keep the sand away. But some kind of enormous earth fart explodes deep in the hole, knocking everything to blithereens. At this point I see Ollie, his face masked by mud, fingering his bowler and glowering at Stan, who is blinking sheepishly through the mud with his hair on end.

"The pier excavation was finally completed using both casing and slurry," the report says. "During concrete placement, the contractor was unable to remove the casing with a 200-ton crane, so it remains a permanent fixture within the Floodway."

They can't pull the pipe back out. They don't know why exactly. So the engineers and construction managers on the grand Calatrava "signature" bridge job come to the same conclusion I might have, had this been a household plumbing project involving a broken bolt.

"Ah, shit, just leave the damn thing in there."

We're not done yet. When they went to the next pier shaft, according to the report, "The contractor also reported that difficulties with flowing sands complicated pier construction."

Flowing sands. Isn't that a nice name for it? Like a resort.

This one is really hard to explain. They tried to get a jump on the sand by building a kind of steel skirt or "diaphragm wall" around the hole as they drilled. But the sand turned to jelly again and began doing very weird, wobbly things. When they finally got enough of a hole dug to pour concrete, they couldn't pour enough to fill the hole.

Stanley: "More concrete, Ollie."

Ollie (rolling his eyes): "Will you make up your mind, Stanley!"

Eventually they pour twice the amount of concrete the hole is supposed to hold, and then they decide they have poured enough.

"A fine mess you've gotten me into!"

Look, I'm not making this up. It's all in the report. If you go to the Dallas Observer blog, Unfair Park, and search for "at long last," you will find the full report and can read it for yourself. You should. It's wild. It's the most amazing public document I have ever read as a reporter.

And now what do we do with the bridge? The Corps of Engineers has not "signed off" on whether the thing can even be completed. So if it can't be built, what do we do with the parts? Put an ad on Craig's List?

Parts for stunning landmark bridge by cool European architect, available for quite reasonable price from major Southwestern city. This could put your burg on the map! Financiamos.

I have given you this one example of what's going on out there. Now, if you want to get some idea of the full scope of the problem along the river, multiply this situation by 1,000.

The Corps of Engineers report cites hundreds of serious problems with the levees, including many other bridges built over the years in ways that weaken or compromise the levees and expose the city to threat of flooding.

The Corps itself is far from innocent in this. Kevin Craig, acting director of the Corps' Trinity River project, told me: "Five of the bridges were in place at the time the Corps made modifications to the system in the 1950s. The majority of the remaining bridges and other encroachments were approved by the Corps based on approval policies and procedures in place at the time."

So, as the city staff bitterly points out, the Corps approved this stuff and now has changed the rules. Terrible! On the other hand, in the wake of Katrina and other terrible levee failure floods around the nation, isn't changing the rules a good thing? Would the City of Dallas prefer the Corps stick with weak, compromised levees and just not tell us about it?

What does this Dallas Trinity River report tell us? The truth is obscured and soft-pedaled, but it's unmistakable nonetheless. I think this is what the report really says:

Forget the toll road. Forget the lakes. Forget the phony suspension bridges. You may have to clear-cut the Great Trinity Forest that acts as a bathtub plug at the down-river end. You may need to cancel the new southern Dallas levees that only serve to back up the river downtown.

Get together all the money you can. Probably create a special taxing district. Rebuild the entire levee system, maybe with some kind of hard-sided (concrete or steel) levee system.

Fine. Call me Cassandra. Maybe there's a less radical solution. But in order to find out what that solution is, don't we have to go back to the basic drawing board? The only person at City Hall who has even called for a fundamental re-examination is council member Angela Hunt.

Mayor Leppert, at the end of the council briefing on the Corps report, said: "I want to be very clear. The toll road, the manmade lakes, the whitewater rafting...I think it's very clear from the conversations we have had today that this is going forward. It's going forward aggressively, and everybody is absolutely in agreement on that."

Everybody who? Leppert actually believes the city cares more about whitewater rafting than a catastrophic flood of downtown?

Former Mayor Ron Kirk, speaking to the Morning News at the end of last week, said, "I just find it remarkable that you would wait until you've gotten that far along with bridge construction and now raise a concern about the integrity of the levees."

Yeah. It is remarkable that the bridge went this far. But, Mr. Kirk, what about the safety of the levees?

Leppert has told the Morning News he sees no reason the city should slow down on the toll road or the eye-candy bridges. But the city has no idea where it's going to get the money for the levee repairs.

Are these people mentally unbalanced?

What you are not hearing from them is this: Oh...my...God. We can't believe we missed this. We are so ashamed. We have endangered the heart, the soul, the life of the city. Whatever months we may have left in public service we must devote to redressing this terrible dereliction of duty.

Should we hold our breath?

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