Taking the Chevy to the Levees

Last night about midnight I was watching the Trinity River flow gauge in downtown Dallas on the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Information System Web page and saw that the flow was really spiking. So, even after a horrible day at home with flood and electrical crises of my own, I couldn't resist: I drove downtown and took a ride over the Continental bridge to the little turn-out on the west levee. You can park there, if you leave your emergency blinkers on, and it puts you right at the western end (actually southern at that point) of the Calatrava bridge construction.

I walked out on the levee and was overwhelmed by a sight that was at once magnificent and terrible.

The river had risen up out of its channel and was spread across the floodway from levee to levee. Above it on the eastern (really northern there) bank, downtown Dallas gleamed -- a mountain range of blue, green, red and white lights. The construction equipment for the Calatrava bridge - a crane on tracks, maybe a Caterpillar tractor, other stuff I couldn't quite make out in the dark -- was parked up on the side of the levee, but it looked to me as if the water was already in it.

And a couple miles due west of me, an entire neighborhood had been evacuated because the city's creaky flood water pump system had failed.

We don't always think of that. The problem is not only the water inside the levees, in the river. It's also the water rushing down out of the neighborhoods trying to get into the river but blocked by the levees. That water gathers in "sumps," or ponds, and has to be pumped over the levee. If the pumps fail, that's almost as big a disaster for nearby homes as a levee break might be.

There's a place where the piers for the unfinished Calatrava bridge go straight down into the levee from the crest of the levee. Last night water had pooled around the tops of those piers. That means water is worming its way down the piers into the heart of the levee. Not good.

I see the river at that stage, and I think of the people who ask, "Could downtown Dallas really flood?" When it's levee-to-levee like that, it's the Mississippi - huge, broad, sliding over itself in sheets like molten metal.

You look at that much water, shouldering through the city at night like the god of all water moccasins. And think about the rickety crap that protects us from it. When I finally got to my pillow for the night, I lay there for a good long while staring at the ceiling.

I know what it would take for the city to wake up to this danger. I hope it never happens.

And don't try go to the city's Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge Construction Web cam to see any of this for yourselves. It's still down because of "weather." Right.

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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