First thing I need to tell you right off the bat, I am not obsessed with the flood levels on the Trinity River in downtown Dallas this week because I want the river to overtop and destroy the flood-control levees and wreak havoc on lives and property. That would be awful.
What's my problem? My problem is this: If and when the river does makes it over those levees or finds some other way to tear them down, a 30- to 50-foot wall of water will explode into downtown like a Luftwaffe bombing raid on London, and that catastrophe will be the work and the responsibility not of nature but of man.
Men. And women. We'll be able to name them. In fact we have been naming them for you here at the Dallas Observer since 1998. We told you then how Dallas had designed a massive redo of the Trinity River downtown, supposedly a flood control project, not to provide flood safety at all but to provide a road. In fact the design of the project flew in the face of global state-of-the-art flood control science.
See also:Flood Money
A Texas Department of Transportation engineer who was then the mastermind of the design admitted to us that new longer levees were to be built downriver from downtown so that they could be used as a physical base for the road as well as providing fiscal support for it.
Flood control experts the world over, from Amsterdam to Tulsa, told us then that building new levees would only increase flood risk for downtown by backing up and confining the river when it flooded.
"Nobody is building levees anymore," said Ron Flanagan, a Tulsa flood consultant. "It's so passe. It uses the government's money to put people at risk and then bail them out again, while private landowners reap the profit. Dallas is so far behind the curve, it's almost a joke."
The late Ned Fritz, the environmental activist who had defeated an earlier plan to make the Trinity River a barge canal to Houston, explained to us exactly how the Trinity River project would increase flood danger to downtown. Fritz used year-level flood marks, a benchmarking system, to explain it:
"The 800-year flood is now 3.5 feet above the existing levees downtown," he said. "The swale ('lakes') they want to dig will lower the flood 3.6 feet, which will put the flood back down one-tenth of a foot below the top of the levees. The new levees below downtown will push the crest back up 2.5 feet downtown.
"That means the new levees will put the flood back up over the tops of the levees and cause untold devastation."
Hey, it wasn't just environmentalists and Dallas Observer columnists who saw it. Three years later in 2001, the director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Bush White House wrote to the secretary of the Army (because the project was under the Army Corps of Engineers) and told him he should ditch the Dallas project.
See also: Dallas to Bush: Drop Dead
The letter said, "OMB has serious concerns about the way the Corps formulated this project." OMB Director Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., now president of Purdue University, said the OMB was worried about the longer levees to be built downriver in Dallas, which "would yield a net negative economic return, by increasing the overall flood damage in the city from a very large storm."
His letter suggested the Corps consider a program to buy out homeowners at risk south of downtown."
You may remember that in 2009, the Corps of Engineers itself gave powerful endorsement to the idea that something was badly wrong in Dallas by decreeing that the existing levee system was worthless — worthless — in its ability to protect downtown Dallas form the so-called 100-year flood, the minimum level of protection without which you have to declare the land a floodplain and everybody has to buy federal flood insurance.
Dallas went to war on that one, joining a consortium of other cities with the same problem to lobby Congress to make the Corps back off. Eventually that's just what the Corps did: it "redefined" risk — something I'm not sure Einstein could have pulled off — and ruled that under the new definition the Dallas levees were great.
To me that's like this: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find Listeria in Blue Bell Ice Cream. A couple nights later I see footage on the news of Donny ("Kid") Bluebelloski, the owner, playing golf with Obama on Martha's Vineyard. The next day the CDC issues a correction saying it was a typo, they meant Wisteria.
I'm not eating it.
When the Corps of Engineers finally withdrew its opinion that the Trinity River levees suck and said instead that the city's fixes to the system are fine, it stuck a little line in the document that few people noticed. From here on out, apparently, the safety ratings of the levee system are between Dallas and its hired engineering consultants.
The Corps, which calls itself "USACE," said, "USACE provides no opinion as to the efficacy of the modification for providing flood risk management benefits."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Oh, isn't that reassuring? Isn't that great to know? They got so sick of dealing with Dallas and its toll road hustlers that they just wimped out of the safety business entirely.
I don't like how that makes me feel. I don't like it at all. It's doesn't seem American. When director Fred Zinneman was looking over the script for High Noon in 1952, he didn't say to the screenwriters, "What if we have Gary Cooper suggest to the town-folk at the end that they leave him out of it and just hire a public safety consultant?"
Not how the West was won.
So, yeah, I'm watching the flood levels this week, and I am mentally preparing my list of names for the Flood Crimes Tribunal to consider. But, no, I don't want it to happen. No way. It scares me. If it does happen, I hope it sort of skirts around my own house, but I haven't been able to come up with a new definition of risk that would mention me by name.