City Hall

What's a Little Flood Danger to a Really Fun Bridge Renaming Fete?

On the one hand, naming a linear park on an old bridge for a former mayor seems like something that would fall somewhere between a nice thing to do at best and at the very worst harmless. But it’s the misdirection that counts. When you look at what some city leaders are not doing while they hold bridge renaming parties for themselves instead, then what they do falls somewhere between asinine and atrocity.

At least we could be spared the huffing and puffing. Last Saturday some of the people who want to build an expressway along the Trinity River downtown gathered at the river to rededicate the old Continental Bridge in the name of former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. There was huffing and puffing to the effect that some people (Kirk) just don’t get the credit they deserve for all the good they’ve done.

Carol Reed, who for years was Kirk’s go-to campaign consultant, told James Ragland at The Dallas Morning News, “This has always been one of my biggest gripes around here. These huge projects just don’t happen unless you go and duke it out with people.”

Oh, I think Kirk gets a lot of credit for duking, and he was doing a pretty good job duking at his bridge party. He told 300 people gathered for the naming ceremony that the Trinity River before his reign had been what he called the city’s own “Berlin Wall,” a source of separation in the city.

But now, according to Kirk, almost 20 years into the project without one shovel of dirt turned on his highway, the project is what he called a source of unity: “Today is a celebration of our slow, steady march toward becoming a whole city,” he said in a speech, “and an acknowledgement that no matter how dynamic we may be in one area, we are so much stronger when we are together.”

Together? Is he really telling us that his unbuilt highway has brought the city together? That falls somewhere between a big middle finger and a sharp poke in the eye.

Face it. No one on either side of the toll road debate could come up with a single local issue in the last 20 years that has been the source of more disunity, animosity or basic loss of faith in City Hall than this endlessly stalled proposal to jam an utterly unneeded exhaust-spewing expressway through a park.

But, look, even that is not the real point here. Every single day we continue to focus on the road debate – should it be a big road or a big park — is a day we don’t spend time thinking about the fact that this river can kill people. Specifically, our leaders should be explaining to us the unhealthy relationship between Kirk’s Trinity River Project approved by voters in 1998 and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

In both cases, here and in New Orleans, local leaders are lying to the public about flood safety. In order to keep flood insurance rates down and continue to promote real estate development in dangerous flood zones, local officials acting through their congressional delegations have succeeded in hiding the truth about flood safety from the citizenry.

After Katrina, Congress ordered a national survey of flood control levees, the earthen barriers that are supposed to contain flood waters on one side and protect the land on the other side. That survey found hundreds of miles of levee systems in America that are so inadequate, so poorly built in the first place, so eroded and deteriorated over time that they provide zero protection against the standard measurement for a bad flood, called a "100-year flood" in flood control parlance .

Scientific American published a great piece four years ago about the findings of that survey; the survey produced a new classification for really bad levees, called “without levee.” A designation of “without levee” meant that an area supposedly protected by a given levee actually had the same level of protection as an area that had no levee at all.

That’s bad.

All of central Dallas including downtown was on its way to becoming a “without levee” area, because the survey found that the Trinity River levees provided no reliable protection against  a 100-year flood. At all.

That’s real bad.
That would have meant much steeper flood insurance rates for buildings already in place and probably a ban of some kind on certain kinds of new development.

So, you might assume, Dallas went right to work tearing down its wobbly, mud-sliding, inadequate and outdated levee system in order to replace it with something that would provide real protection.

Hell, no. I already told you. Dallas wanted a new expressway along the river, out between the levees, right in the middle of the floodway, to promote even more real estate development near the levees. The Kirk toll road is still, at last count, $1.5 to $2 billion in the hole in terms of what it would cost to build compared to available funding.

If Dallas had stopped long enough to rebuild its levee system, that local public cost alone would have shoved the new highway and everything else that wasn’t life-and-death essential right off the table. So what were the chances?

I have told you here — probably a few times — how Dallas joined a consortium of other cities that were facing “without levee” designations. Together they lobbied the congress to make federal officials roll back the findings of the levee safety survey. The Scientific American piece  offers another window on the same process, describing a bipartisan alliance of 27 U.S. senators who complained that the “without levee” designation, even though based on science and engineering, “may be unnecessarily devaluing property and hurting the economies of cities, towns, counties and businesses.”

Yeah, but.

Scientific American quotes Eli Lehrer, former head of the Center on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate at the Heartland Institute, as saying: “In many cases, a decertified levee does something. It may not protect against a 100-year flood, but it's foolish to ignore that the levee is in fact there.”

Yeah, but.

What is the Heartland Institute? According to Sourcewatch, the Heartland Insitute “questions the reality and import of climate change, second-hand smoke health hazards, and a host of other issues that might seem to require government regulation.” 

The New York Times last week published a deeply disturbing piece on all this by Andy Horowitz,  an assistant professor of history at Tulane University who has written extensively for the New Yorker and other publications about Katrina and New Orleans. In it, Horowitz tackles the question of federal flood insurance. The lobbying effort in which Dallas was an eager player succeeded in forcing FEMA to back off new proposed insurance rates that would have been based on science, engineering and actuarial calculation — in other words on reality.

Beaten about the ears by politicians, FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ducked for cover and adopted instead a new arcane definition of risk based on politics. In the case of the Dallas levees, FEMA changed its mind and said that the levees along the Trinity River, which it had just got done designating as nonexistent, were being reclassified as safe for the next 100,000 years.

The New Orleans story is awful but not necessarily more horrible than our own. As Horowitz recounts, the new political flood insurance rates show most of New Orleans as entirely safe from flooding even though in 2009 FEMA had found most of the city at the same risk it was when Katrina happened.

This is in spite of the fact that deep canals dug by the oil industry continue to erode coastal wetlands. Subsidence or sinking of the land will take land levels in the city, now 54 percent below sea level, to 75 percent below sea level by 2050.

Worse, perhaps, is that the new feel-good politically derived flood insurance rates will continue to encourage even more development in flood-prone areas while climate change and other factors continue to increase the size and threat of those areas.

So we use our congressional clout to force the federal government to let us build in flood zones and then give us artificially cheap government flood insurance. We get flooded. We file our claims. But does the rubber ever meet the road in this narrative?

Sure it does. In 2014, the last time anyone got an honest peek, the national flood insurance program was $24 billion in the hole. In fact it isn’t even a true insurance program anymore, because claims are being funded straight from congressional appropriations.

That’s not insurance. That’s welfare. And isn’t it interesting that people like the Heartland Institute fight for federal welfare as long as it’s not going to poor people who actually need it. And then they call themselves conservatives.

All of the feel-good talk at the bridge-naming party last weekend was like shooting silly-string over gravestones. The people who sponsored the party, philanthropist Mary McDermott Cook and the Trinity Commons Foundation, have good reason to be delighted with Kirk, because he has been so good at helping them get what they want.

No, they don’t have an expressway along the river yet, thank God, thanks to the able stewardship of a new younger cadre of leaders in the city. But they still intend to get that road built and in order to make that happen they will do whatever they can to deflect our attention from the real issues.

Are we safe? What was the answer before the lobbying effort? What are the real rates, based on science, engineering and actuarial calculation? Don’t tell us that the real rates pose a danger of “devaluing property and hurting the economies of cities, towns, counties and businesses.”

What do you think it’s going to do to us as a nation to continue to insure massive amounts of property at rates that won’t pay the freight? And are there not human beings in those properties — men, women and children whose lives are at risk?

That’s why I say the bridge-naming party may look innocent but is not. It’s all misdirection — an effort to steer our eyes away from underlying reality.  It's a trick, but it's a life-and-death trick.
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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