Dear Corps of Engineers: Save the Fancy Talk and Just Tell Us If We Should Build an Ark

Categories: Get Off My Lawn

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All right, class, today our lesson is: "Logical Wormholes and Semantic Corkscrews: Translating the Language of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Into More or Less Plain English, or, You Know, Spanish. Whatever. Language How People Talk."

But first an ironclad guarantee. This is not a homework assignment. There will be no quiz. While reading this material you are free to chew gum, text, have sex or just bail on the whole thing. It's a damn blog item. It's not supposed to be a spinal tap.

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Says you.
Two weeks ago I wrote a column about some documents leaked to me from inside the Corps of Engineers. For those of you who are new to this topic, the word corps, you will notice, does not have an "e" on the end of it. It means a branch of the armed forces.

The Corps of Engineers is part of the Army, and it is responsible for all of the big dams and levees used to control floods in this country. If you want to know why, ask a professor. To me, it's just how it is.

In 2009, the Corps of Engineers ruled that the levees that protect downtown Dallas from catastrophic flooding during our twice-a-year rainy seasons were no good. They didn't protect the city from squat.

The federal government publishes maps that show whether your property is subject to catastrophic flooding. If it is, you have to buy flood insurance, and your property is worth less than property not threatened by floods.

Two things: The corps inspects the levees, but the city has to keep them up and fix them if they go bad. It's a deal they agreed to years ago by contract, and it's how things are done all over the nation.

Back when the government still thought the Dallas levees were good, the government's flood maps showed a huge chunk of Dallas as being safe because of the levees. No insurance required. As soon as the corps said the levees were no good, the government, through its Federal Emergency Management Agency, said it was going to have to draw new maps.

They haven't done that yet. They're working on it. The city, meanwhile, is trying to fix the levees before that happens.

Otherwise, it's not just that people will have to get insurance. If the new maps say all that land is no longer safe, the property on that land will be worth much less, and the city would receive less in taxes. That would be a big money-loser for the city.

So the city has a plan to fix the levees. The city staff has told the city council that they're sure the corps will like the plan and will give it the OK.

So, back to my leaked documents. They show that the technical staff of the corps does not like the city's fix-it plans. In fact, some months ago the staff insisted that corps management allow them to enter into the official internal corps record a disclaimer saying that the corps in no way endorses the city's planned repairs as a way to restore the levees to safety.

In addition, the corps' technical staff insisted on going back through a document called an environmental assessment to strip out any language endorsing the city's methods for restoring levee safety.

I asked the corps if it was true those things had been done. They agreed that the disclaimer from my documents was accurate. They agreed that the environmental assessment had been changed, although they did not specify exactly how.

But in their answer to me the corps suggested it was never their job anyway to make the sign of the cross over the proposed fixes. They said that was the job of the consulting engineer hired by the city: "The city's consultant is responsible for certifying the 100-year plan meets FEMA standards for the National Flood Insurance Program," they told me.

I asked this: If it was never your intention to endorse the fixes, why did you have to enter a disclaimer into your own record stating explicitly that you did not endorse the fixes and why did you have to modify the other document to make sure you took out any language that might appear to endorse those fixes?

I have never received an answer to those questions. But a few days after I asked them, the corps published a new "fact sheet" -- sort of a bulletin or circular -- titled "Who certifies levees in Dallas?"

All right, Alice, gather your skirts. We're about to jump down the hole. Here we go.



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41 comments
Sk2915kaiso
Sk2915kaiso

Let's move downtown Big D to Allen, we're on high ground!  

JimS
JimS

If you are just tuning in or re-tuning in now, be sure to see commnets below on "liability shift."

Herb
Herb

Probably more than you all want to know, but here goes:

The Army rates levees Acceptable, Minimally Acceptable or Unacceptable  for the purposes of the levee repair program required in the PL 84-99.  This law requires the Army to "fix" a levee system damaged in a flood, if the levee is rated MA or A.   This applies to levees constructed by the Army or levees that apply for the program and are judged qualified to be in it.  Only about 14% of the levees in US are eligible for PL 84-99; the other 86% never see an Army inspection.

FEMA requires that levees be certified by a Licensed PE as a prerequisite for accreditation.   A levee that is not accredited will not be shown as providing protection from the 100 year flood.   That's why the maps change when a levee is de-accredited.  

There is a nexus.  Some levees when rated U by the Army are de-accredited.  Not always, FEMA takes a case by case review.

The reason why the Army does not certify has to do with the divergent purposes of the FEMA and PL 84-99 programs.   FEMA is establishing insurance rate zones based on the risk of flooding.  The Army is driving the system to maximum safety.   Certification creates the error I see discussed here, that the PE is "guaranteeing" the levee performance.   Folks look at the FEMA program and conclude that since they are behind an accredited levee they are safe.  The Army looks at that as the mindset that killed, or contributed to the killing, of 1300 Americans in New Orleans.  You are not safe behind a levee, you are safer for the range of floods up to the design flood than you would otherwise be.

Look at FEMA as digital, Pass Fail, either insurance in mandatory or not.  Look at the Army as analog, continuous improvements, "worst first""  approach.  Different programs different purposes.

And there is no such thing as Errors and Omissions insurance that will cover levee certification.  Fortunately, here in Texas, the plaintiff must fund the studies needed to make his case of negligence prior to going to trial.  Since levee certification projects run into 7 figures that is a big hurdle.  But do remember this when you read of design fees, there is a tremendous amount of risk even in Texas, and the PE deserves to be compensated for taking it for you

Herb

Mountain Creek
Mountain Creek

Jim:  You just don't get it, do you?  You are asking the wrong questions.  It's not about the levees.  They will throw some dirt around.  Maybe even some concrete.  And if we're really 'spendy' at the time, maybe even some iron/steel.

It's about the evacuation plan.  Plain and simple.  

That's what it's about in New Orleans.  That's what it's about in Hawaii.  That's what it's about in Galveston. And that's what it'll be about in Dallas.

Mayor Mike is known for making the best signs around.  You've seen them dotting hike/bike trails, haven't you?

Prepare to see some fancy evacuation signs and accompanying maps.  

The question you should be asking is: "who will be bidding on the contract to make the signs?"...

JT
JT

"That means they have to get their own engineer to give them a guarantee that the repairs, once built, are good."

Two words: Liability - Shift

Good luck finding an engineer willing to do that, 'Oh yeah, its great guys, high five! Excuse me while I shift my assets offshore...'

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder
Editilla~New Orleans Ladder

Jim, you are so badass. Please maintain this pressure, never bow. The Exquisite Corps plays all sides against the middle, as for example in New Orleans now with our bad pumps: wrangled in bidding lawsuits over their own corruption, until of course the Corps will get what they want anyway eventually. I wonder who is doing the PR contract for your Exquisite Corps.Thanks Yous,Editilla~New Orleans Ladderhttp://noladder.blogspot.com/

Perry Moore
Perry Moore

In the late '80s, we built a multi-million dollar, fabulously equipped, state-of-the-art hobby center on Fort Hood under the Corps' inspection. It was pure dee hell, from beginning to end, right down to the last bonehead detail. On the first day of work, the Corps made us replace all of our extension cords with a size that most venues have never sold. Amazingly, the local K/Walmart had exactly that size to sell us, in abundance. Anyway, that perfectly constructed, Corps-rated building burned down less than a year later when a soldier sucked a cigarette butt into the state-of-the-art wood shop vacuum system.

Levees.org
Levees.org

The only thing we can add to Jim's column is that the corps has very expensive PR firms whose role seems to be to obscure the corps' messaging and to protect the corps' reputation badly tarnished after the federal flood of greater New Orleans.  Oh, and paid for with Americans' tax dollars.

LeveesRDeath
LeveesRDeath

Let me see if I understand you correctly.  Several years ago Americans totally trashed the Corps of Engineers and FEMA for not informing the residents of New Orleans about their true flood risk. Today,the Corps of Engineers, having painfully learned the lessons of Katrina, are saying" "We believe that your levees do not meet minimum safety standards." Yes,the levees that protect your children and your businesses.  With that, FEMA is saying "We want everyone to know their flood risk and if you have Federal tax dollars supporting your mortgage, we think you should protect that investment with insurance. I don't know, it seems pretty logical to me.

withak30
withak30

Usually it works like this:1.  The city hires an engineer (actually an entire firm of engineers) who agrees to design the levee fixes in exchange for money.

2.  The engineer does a whole bunch of analysis, designs the levee improvement, then writes a long report stating that the design is adequate and describing the analysis work that was done.  This report gets stamped by one or more licensed engineers, basically putting them and their firm on the hook if they missed anything during the process.  They have professional liability insurance for this.

3.  The city passes that report to FEMA who either has their engineers review it or possibly hires someone to review it.  They (FEMA) may ask someone at the Corps of Engineers to review it as well, but the Corps doesn't get the final thumbs up or thumbs down on flood insurance stuff.

4.  FEMA either agrees with the report (this never happens on the first submittal), or they have comments which get handed back to the engineer hired by the city.  The engineer revises the design to incorporate the comments from the various reviewers and FEMA eventually approves it after all of the i's are dotted and t's crossed to their satisfaction.

JimS
JimS

James Frisinger of the Corps has been in touch with me since this went up. Below is my question to him a week or so ago, followed by his response.quote"Q1.  Does or does not the Corps have to find the levee repairs acceptable at some point in time in order for FEMA to put the levees back on the map? A1. No, the Corps does not have to find the levee repairs acceptable in order for FEMA to certify the levees under its program.  The levees could potentially be rated unacceptable for the Corps’ authorized 800-year level of protection, and still be certified for FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program.  On one hand, the Corps inspection process is geared toward an authorized level of protection.  In the case of the Dallas Floodway, this is for an approximate 800-year flood event.  On the other hand, FEMA certification is for identifying risks for flood insurance purposes under the National Flood Insurance Program.  This is based on the 100-year flood event.  There is no direct link between the two programs. "

end quote

My understanding of events so far -- and apparently my view is supported by the Corps own Fact Sheet -- is that it was the Corps's finding in 2009 that the levees were unacceptable that caused FEMA to de-accredit the levees. If the Corps only found them unacceptable for providing 800-year protection but acceptable for 100-year, why would FEMA have de-accredited them for the 100-year level? Therefore I asked Mr. Frisinger this afternoon: quote"When the Corps withdrew its 2006 letter, was that based on a finding that the levees could not be rated for the 800 year flood but should be rated for the 100 year flood? If so, who decided that the levees are not safe for the 100-year flood?"He wrote back:"Jim: Thanks for the questions. I'll get back to you promptly. - Jim"end quoteI will keep y'all posted. 

Alan
Alan

This is blatantly a process geared to point the finger of blame later, not to prevent catastrophe.  No doubt the HNTB or other engineering certification would reference arcane Corps and FEMA bible chapters that could be readily obfuscated for a jury.  So who would end up paying for a drowned Dallas?  Ooh, I think I feel a tug on my middle-class wallet.

Darrd2010
Darrd2010

I still want to hear what the USACE told Dallas City Hall about Joe Pool Lake Dam and nearby drilling. Funny how they've locked down all communication related to that back and forth that occured in early 2011 right before Skeletor flew the coop.

ScottsMerkin
ScottsMerkin

Well if they tell you dont need it and you wind up needing the ark, then they get sued, same as if they say you do need it and never do.  They want you to decide for us Jim so in the end they can blame it all on you and still maintain the great back door/room relationships they always have w/o making each other look silly.

RTGolden
RTGolden

Judging by the number of Ospreys (the plane-icopter thing, not the bird) spontaneously crashing and killing marines, I'd say your conjecture

 "If I manufacture a jet fighter plane for the military, do I get to call them up and say, "The product has passed my own inspection, so send me the damn check?"

is probably spot on.

Paul
Paul

Well JS what you have just witnessed is unspeak.

Since the government is broke, I guess they are trying to move some items off of the budget by getting a private party to pick up the liability tab on say ... $50 Billion of property damage in the event the levee fails (Yes Virginia that is a Carl Sagan Billion with a "B".)

David Cornell
David Cornell

bureaucracy in action = bureaucracy inaction?

primi_timpano
primi_timpano

The last time houston tried to evacuate in advance of a hurricane the entire highway system froze up.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder
Editilla~New Orleans Ladder

The problem as I see it is this: both the Corps --who have somehow managed to get themselves into the catbird seat to certify their own bad engineering after killing over 1000 people in New Orleans-- and FEMA --who take the Corps bad data into consideration without consideration-- are playing the taxpayer against the next flood disaster. I know it sounds complicated but it's actually simple: we pay the Exquisite Corps for screwing us the first time. Then, we get to pay the Corps again to fix their own screw up, with FEMA/NFIP as muscle behind the "who pays for this punk fest." We should get the Mafia to protect us, as then we at least wouldn't have to deal with these smarmy A-Holes.

JimS
JimS

I'm afraid you do not understand correctly. The technical staff of the Corps has demanded that management put into the record a statement to the effect that the Corps does not endorse the city's proposed levee repairs as a means of managing flood risk. The city is continuing to tell the public that the Corps does in fact endorse its proposed repairs as a means of managing flood risk. These are conflicting assertions. Both cannot be true. Where in any of this do you see the Corps making a clear statement to the public of its assessement of the proposed repairs as a means of managing flood risk? Doesn't the public deserve some simple candor here?

JimS
JimS

OK. But why did the Corps's withdrawal of a rating of acceptability trigger the Corps's de-accreditation of the levees? Answer that, you get the stuffed banana.

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

Jim,

That was exactly the right question to ask; I await his next repsonse.

scottindallas
scottindallas

It's harder to sue the gov't than any other institution

JimS
JimS

I have made my decision. Take all of the money that was to be devoted to this project. Send to First Bank of Louis Prima, Isle of Man, Acct #322WT89X65, c/o Jim Schutze. I can see I'm just going to have to handle this mess myself .

Diana Powe
Diana Powe

"The mishap rate that the Marine Corps has used publicly for the MV-22 follows Naval Safety Center standards that are applied universally across all type/model/series in the Navy and Marine Corps inventory. Those records bear out that the MV-22 has the lowest Class A [fatal] flight mishap rate of any tactical rotorcraft in the Marine Corps fleet over the last 10 years."

SOURCE: http://www.marines.mil/unit/hq...

JimS
JimS

Great point. If it's going to be HNTB that does all the certifying, does that mean HNTB gets a big bull's eye painted on it for litigation in the event of failure? 

Mountain Creek
Mountain Creek

I'm not saying it's RIGHT.  I'm just saying it IS.

scottindallas
scottindallas

"Where in any of this do you see the Corps making a clear statement to the public of its assessement of the proposed repairs as a means of managing flood risk? Doesn't the public deserve some simple candor here?"

Jim, you haven't been paying attention, looking at all these trees.  This IS our candor, this is our warning.  We're in the age of preventive war, and the president killing US citizens without due process, you're like a wilting flower at a cotillion waiting for his honey.  We're not worthy of candor.

Paul
Paul

Since when does logic apply to (or is a requisite for) local and federal bureaucracies?

withak30
withak30

Maybe one agency's change in rating triggers an update across the board?  Or maybe the Corps's inspection was bad enough that FEMA was comfortable de-accrediting it without a more detailed study?  There are a lot of pretty terrible levees out there.

Tone'sTaint
Tone'sTaint

Can we send money there to pay you for a "hit" on a local douchy sports writer/blogger? 

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

Believe it or not, when I was down at the City the other day, I actually overheard a guy on the phone discussing this exact issue.  What he said is that the certfifying firm will have to purchase a big liability policy to cover their risk of getting sued, and that the premium will actually constitute a substantial amount of the expense associated with the certification.

withak30
withak30

I'm not levees.org, but a 100-year flood has about a 1% chance of occurring in a given year (though it's actually not exactly 1/100).  Keep in mind that if there is a 100-year flood this year then the probability of the same flood happening again next year remains exactly the same.  Also look at Paul's post below about all of the things that go into defining a 100-year flood and how that can change over time.

Paul
Paul

They (the individual floods) are independent events and can occur back to back in the same year as well as from year to year.

There are a number of ways of estimating the level of a 100 year flood event for a given location in a given river.

The easiest is to simply record the height of flood crests for each storm event.  After a sufficient period of time, basic statistical techniques are used to determine what are the flood levels that will be exceeded 1% of the time, that is 99% of all flood events will be at or below this level and 1% of all flood events will be at or above this level.

Where a difficulty arises is when runoff rates change over time in the upstream watershed from a given point.

The result of the increase in runoff rates is that it takes less of a storm (rain) event for the 99% exceedance rate.  The 100 year flood event level then rises in elevation.

Another difficulty arised when floodwater impoundments are created upstream of a given point on a river.  If the full floodwater impoundment pool is availablem the downstream crest elevation is reduced, though when the floodwater impoundment upstream is drained, river elevations are at a higher level, though lower than the flood elevation, for an extended period of time.

An additional diffculty arises when in a wet period in the local climate that the floodwater pools in the upstream reservoirs cannot be adequately drained between storm events.  This did happen a few years ago when the Corps was draining the flood control pool on Grapevine when a major rain event came through the area which raised the floodwater elevation in the Dallas Floodway to a critical level.

For the Dallas area, Lewisville, Ray Roberts and Grapevine all have a portion of their impoundment dedicated to flood control.

Hope this helps.

JimS
JimS

The commenter above who used the term "liability shift," may have been right on. This could be the bone they are trying to bury. Maybe the Corps has told the city it won't expose itself to liability by re-certifying this dog. Therefore even though it was the Corps that de-certified when it withdrew its letter, the re-certification must be done by the city's consultant. That means the city must pay a new cost for insurance or at least suffer some new level of exposure. That comes out of our pockets. But has any  one of our august elected representatives ferreted out this point? Not a peep so far.

primi_timpano
primi_timpano

I understand the math, but take this hypothetical example:  It is 1991 and the Corp/FEMA whoever, estimates the 100 year flood to result in the river rising 20 feet.  Between then and now we have three floods where the water rises more than 20 feet.  Do the statisticians stick to their 100 yr estimate, saying that this is a run of bad luck, but one that is likely to occur given a large enough data sample, or do they revise the 100 yr estimates?

Are these estimates based solely on "modern" recorded history of the DFW area or do the statisticians look at probabilities from places with longer recorded meteorological histories?

I guess another way to phrase the issue is whether extreme weather events constitute a fat or skinny tail on the weather bell curve.

Jim Schutze
Jim Schutze

Levees.org, we need you on this. What is the actual math on the probability of a 100 yr flood in any given year?

Paul
Paul

Generally speaking, engineers have what is called errors and ommissions coverage.  In order to obtain a settlement under the policy the party claiming the loss will have to prove that the engineer either commited an error in their analysis and/or ommitted a relevant item from the analysis and that that error is the proximate cause for the loss.

In some instances, the limit on damages is the fee charged.

Please also remember that a levee could fail and the engineer who did the analysis has not liability if the cause for the failure had nothing to do with the engineer's analysis.

Hope that this helps.

A 100 year flood event has a 1 in 100 probability (1%) of occuring in any given year.  An 800 year flood event has a 1 in 800 probability (0.125%) of occuring in any given year.

Levees.org
Levees.org

That is a good question regarding the difference between 100-year flood protection and 800. While we at Levees.org don't know the exact answer, we have enough experience to know from our experience here in New Orleans since the flood that the difference in levee height, and therefore expense, is likely relatively small.  Perhaps even incremental.

primi_timpano
primi_timpano

If the engineering firm has to have a liability policy, how much is the liability and who is the insured?  I am guessing that the liability will be the cost of repairs of the thence failing levees.  This wouldn't cover business and residential losses covered by traditional property and casualty policies.

Nor would it seem that FEMA or private insurers would take the city's engineering certification at face value and price and offer insurance based on the certification alone.

What is the difference between a 100 year flood and an 800 year flood, and is there any accurate estimate as to the whether  these floods occur at a greater frequency than their respective labels?

Paul
Paul

Assuming that you could even get someone to underwrite the risk ....

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