Deep Into the Corps: Agency's Own Leaky Docs Express Doubts About City's Levee Fixes

Categories: Get Off My Lawn

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On November 10 I wrote a column for the paper about documents leaked to me from within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicating that the corps has no faith in repairs to the Trinity River levees being proposed by the City of Dallas. I can show the documents to you now. They tell quite a story.

Not to oversimplify, but when I review what these documents have to say about the city's efforts to protect downtown Dallas from catastrophic flooding, the word that comes to mind is nightmare.

Yesterday, James C. Frisinger, a spokesman for of the USACE Fort Worth District, informed me that the documents in my possession are authentic. He emphasized that these are only briefing documents and "not the final product."

In other words, this is internal chit-chat and not at all the formal policy position of the corps. But it's very disturbing chit-chat.

The city was informed in 2009 by USACE that the 23-mile dirt levee system protecting downtown from wall-of-water flooding during our bi-annual monsoon seasons was no good. USACE said the city, which is responsible for maintaining the levees, had allowed them to go to fall apart.

If the city can't fix the levees, it's a disaster for property owners even if we don't have a flood. The federal government will label their land near the river flood-prone; they will have to buy flood insurance; but the big thing is that their land will be worth a lot less for development.

At first, City Manager Mary Suhm said the necessary repairs would cost upwards of $200 million. More recently, her staff revised that number down to more like $30 million.

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Brigadier General Thomas W. Kula
The briefing document leaked to me by my informant shows that top USACE personnel including Brigadier General Thomas W. Kula, commander and chief engineer of the corps division that covers Dallas, have been informed that USACE technical staff thinks the Dallas proposed repairs may do nothing to restore flood safety.

"Do we want to insert the disclaimer," the document asks Kula and other top managers, "and start the process of informing HQ that we do not endorse what they are proposing? Or at least mention that we had some serious disagreements ..."

At the very end of the document, an ominous remark: "USACE (Engineer Research and Development Center) analyses identified larger-scale stability and seepage issues than identified by city consultants ..."

Since I began questioning USACE and the Federal Emergency Management Agency about these documents, both agencies have attempted to play down their significance. FEMA even scheduled a conference call for me with several of their experts in an attempt to convince me that the information in the documents was of no importance to them.

One of the central themes running through these documents is that the repairs proposed by Dallas are a bare minimum effort designed only to keep FEMA from kicking Dallas out of the National Flood Insurance Program entirely -- sort of like getting terminated by your car insurance company because you're too bad a risk.

FEMA told me there was no way that could happen, even if Dallas was entirely negligent in maintaining its levees. They said the insurance would just cost more. But I found FEMA's own guidelines as well as provisions in the underlying federal law providing that a city can be expelled from National Flood Insurance Program for various kind of negligence, specifically including failure to maintain a diverted waterway, which is what the Trinity River is through downtown.

That's what these documents say Dallas is doing -- a bare minimum just to maintain eligibility for insurance, with no actual improvement to flood safety itself. The documents make it plain that USACE does not believe the proposed city repairs will restore the levees to the minimum 100-year flood protection level.

I was not supposed to see this stuff. Neither were you. But the corps, in addition to authenticating the documents, has confirmed to me over the last week that the basic actions called for in the documents in fact did take place subsequently.

The disclaimer called for was in fact entered into the record. The corps did rewrite a key environmental assessment to strip out language that endorsed what Dallas is doing.

I think FEMA's responses to me have been less than candid and were intended mainly to mask a public danger from public view in order to maintain cordiality between officials. I have to say the corps has been more forthcoming, with this exception: Since I came into possession of this information, the corps has insisted that the disclaimer and the rewriting of the environmental document were business as usual. It was never their job, their duty or their intention to endorse the Dallas levee repairs, they have told me.

If you have time, take a gander at these documents, at least the first page. Then tell me what you think is going on here.

By the way, my informant tells me that the star-crossed Trinity River Toll Road project is still very much at issue in debates on how to fix the levees. The city could develop the lakes and park it has promised voters and fix the levees at a reduced cost by using the dirt from digging out the lakes to fatten the levees, the source says. But engineers are at an impasse because toll road proponents want to use the dirt for the toll road, to lift it up above flood levels.

To hell with the lakes. To hell with the park. To hell with flood safety. We want our highway.

Tell you what. If we ever do have a levee failure and people die because of that damn road project, there needs to be a way to bring some homicide charges.
Corps Doc-1


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23 comments
Mister_Mean
Mister_Mean

Reminds me of Captain Smith of the Titanic:  "Icebergs?  What Icebergs-full speed ahead"

RTGolden
RTGolden

Will there be a canoe bypass to get out of Oak Cliff when the levees fail?

Guest
Guest

And Rick Perry has us all out praying for rain. Does he want us to die?

Oak Cliff Townie
Oak Cliff Townie

Until its a problem its not a problem .

Then (if ) the day comes when the river has found the point where the levee is weakest and is filling up the low lands at 35 ,183 and Mockingbird and points east as the water finds the natural river bed and continues to follow it . The Mad dash will be to solve the problem at hand rather than finding a cause and identifying the folks responsible .

BILLIONS in loses and JIM and the rest want to play the blame game .

Any questions can suitable be responded to with the City staff answer .....WELL  DANG, WE SURE DIDN'T FORESEE ALL THIS HAPPENING .

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

Cutting to the chase, it appears that Mary Suhm has taken it upon herself to change the role of the levees.  Instead of providing meaningful protection to affected residents and property owners, they now are expected to just be good enough to allow property owners to obtain flood insurance at commercially reasonable rates through a federally subsidized program.

In what now appears to be the very real event of a levee failure (since it appears the Corps is saying that, post-repair, the levees won't meet the relative moderate 100-year standard), we should expect widespread property destruction, but at least property owners with the foresight to purchase flood insurance will be reimbursed.

With respect to the prospect for loss of life, I suspect as long as the levee failure isn't catastrophic, people will have time to flee before the flood waters engulf them.  Of course if a major breach occurs instantaneously, all bets would be off and the body count will likely be fairly high.

Does the City Council understand this is the path that Mary Suhm has chosen for them?

Mountain Creek
Mountain Creek

We need a better "Swimmer's Education" program in Dallas.  Let's get Mayor Mike and SenaTom on this right away...

DM
DM

Its time for Mary Suhm and Jill Jordon to go. That is just a start. Time to clean house with most of City Hall. This news, after yesterday, whereby City Hall et al are defrauding the federal government out of billions. Now, City Hall is putting lives in intentional danger with these levees. Come on people, time for them to go. 

mynameisURL
mynameisURL

Just flag down a "solar powered water-taxi".

..never gets old...

...or take the toll-road. Apparently, it will be built above the predicted flood level.

Levees.org
Levees.org

We in New Orleans didn't have the luxury of a catastrophic flood in someone else's city.  Had there been a failure elsewhere, and had Congress passed the Levee Safety Act of 2007, the corps would have taken a hard look at the levees in New Orleans and would have discovered the civil engineering mistakes revealed during Katrina.

scottindallas
scottindallas

Not to defend her, but perhaps you're being too hard on Mary.  I suspect we don't know exactly how much control she has over the herd she's riding over.  I imagine that these decisions are not made by her, but are dictated by the soft machine, the citizen's council, whatever you want to call it.  Often, we need a crisis, even if it's an "expose" of impending problems to justify a bond vote.  Clearly we have a tight budget, not a big tolerance for tax revenue, so what do you want?  What will the citizens of Dallas vote for, if polled today?  I suspect Mary is in line with the polls.  Sadly, what's required is courage and earnestness from our leaders to lead and inform the people, and to tackle head-on our problems.  But, I don't know if they could ever get elected. 

Tom L (No, Not That L)
Tom L (No, Not That L)

We've seen time and again that most members of the city council don't understand anything concerning the Trinity. And, quite frankly, don't care. Actually, no, it's more than that. They militantly and desperately don't want to understand anything. That way when the shit inevitably hits the fan they've got plausible deniability.

whistleblower2
whistleblower2

Maybe that is what Park and Recs' new water parks are intended to do!

Suhmo
Suhmo

Once again, Dallas is getting exactly what it deserves by putting a former Librarian in charge of the 9th largest City in the Country with a 2 Billion dollar budget! That is insanity. No corporation in the World would do something so stupid, unless they were purposely running the company out of business. 

Oh, but I forgot, the Dallas Citizens Council needed a dumb puppet to handle in their best and most profitable interest. 

REIT
REIT

Furthermore, what dumbass investor would want to come into downtown Dallas and buy some or one of these flood ridden buildings? 

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

Setting aside the widespread incompetence/mismanagement that reigns at City Hall, I expect more out of a city manager than to simply serve as an order taker for powerful special interests, particularly when the orders in question will endanger lives.

The city manager needs to have the strength of character to tell whoever:

1)  No, I won't mislead the general public into thinking these levee repairs are adequate-- we need to do the job the right way; and

2)  No, I won't sign off on false fair housing certifications to get hundreds of millions of dollars, we need to comply with the laws.

If other parties are preventing her from performing her job with integrity and competence, she should have the moral courage to resign and go do something else.  Indeed, this is a common dilemma covered by ethics rules in many professions:  if one is prevented from performing one's job in a proper manner and/or required to violate the law, then the individual is required to resign.

Prog
Prog

I am calling for retirement of Mary Suhm in short order, end of year time frame. Nice way for her to be forced out! 

Mister_Mean
Mister_Mean

Ignorance can be fixed -stupidity is forever.   City of Dallas is the later.

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

According to her 336-word long official bio (which, apparently, one is supposed to cite in its entirety when introducing her royal highness), she actually manages a budget of nearly 3 billion and a staff of approximately 12,500.  I've seen instances wherein people have risen from positions equivalent to branch library manager to greatness, but I think Suhm is in way, way over her head.  Beyond that, she seems to evidence a certain level of smugness, purposeful misdirection, and outright deception at times.  I don't trust her... and just the stuff that's come out in the last 48 hours about the Trinity River levees and public housing suggests that my mistrust of her is well-founded.

Tom L (No, Not That L)
Tom L (No, Not That L)

Seriously. Anybody that's doing due diligence on a multi-million dollar property downtown is going to find out about all this. And City Hall thinks they can just wave it away? Really?

scottindallas
scottindallas

no such thing as private flood insurance, all flood insurance is a federal program.  That may or may not change your argument or point, as property owners will still have to pay a premium, and that won't be appreciated, regardless of who the checks made out to.

Jim Schutze
Jim Schutze

This wedge of the story is definitely beyond the pale of what the News will cover.

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

It seems that major property insurers are eventually going to figure out the game that Suhm is playing and they will either refuse to provide private flood insurance or jack up the premiums to astronomical levels.

Some of the city council members may be idiots, but I don't see the property insurance industry as being that naive.  Who knows, though... maybe it can be kept off their radar screen.  I certainly don't see the Dallas Morning News giving this issue any play.

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