Between the Lines in Corps' Trinity River Enviromental Assessment: Don't Blame Us

Categories: Get Off My Lawn

SHZ_GetOffMyLawn_TitleImageV2.jpg
Buried between the lines in a 246-page document released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers today is a significant national story about the future of flood control in American cities. I doubt very many reporters will dig it out. I'll give you the thumbnail sketch. You may wish I had kept my thumbs out of it.

This is still the post-Katrina era. The flooding in New Orleans changed everything with regard to the corps, which has always been the nation's main weapon against flooding. In New Orleans, now it is a letter of absolute near-religious faith that all of the blame for the devastation in 2005 went to the corps, none to News Orleans. You're not allowed to even whisper otherwise.

For example, I had a long conversation a month or so ago with John M. Barry, whose 1997 book Rising Tide is sort of the layman's Bible on Mississippi flooding. He's a big celeb in New Orleans now. I wanted to ask him about some things I was learning concerning the history of the role of the corps there, in particular a saga years ago in which New Orleans used the Louisiana congressional delegation to get the law changed to force the corps to build a bunch of flood-works inside the city that the corps didn't want to build. My question was whether those events gave New Orleans at least a contingent share in the culpability when those flood-works eventually failed.

Man. The question wasn't even out of my mouth all the way when he brought me up short. He said if I was to going to quote him on this at all, I was to make it plain that he felt all of the blame for Katrina went to the corps. He eventually confirmed the story about the Louisiana delegation getting the law changed, but he kept saying that if I quoted him it had better be to blame the corps.

I think it's part of our national religion now. We're not responsible for anything we do in our own communities. It's the federal government's job to give us everything we want from it. We don't want to pay taxes for it, and if it fails it's all on them.

So the story between the lines in today's big document from the corps concerning the Trinity River levee repairs is that they are protecting themselves. It's very gradual. It's subtle, but it's real, and it's a major deal.

TrinityFlooded1957.jpg
Courtesy George Gimarc
Circa '57
You know already that the levees along the Trinity River flunked a major inspection by the corps in 2007 and were rated "unacceptable" in 2009, meaning that engineers have found they did not provide the minimum level of flood protection needed to avoid mandated federal flood insurance for property owners in the river's floodplain. The city is trying to get the levees fixed on the cheap before a deadline that would force everybody to buy the insurance. Worse, if we fail to meet the deadline, a huge swath of previously valuable land will become relatively worthless for dense development.

Here is what the corps says it did: "As a result of the overall 'Unacceptable' rating received in March 2009, the USACE withdrew its letter of support for continued certification of the Dallas Floodway System for the 100-year event Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) accreditation."

Let me explain that. The city has to hire an engineer who tells the city how to fix or maintain the levees. The engineer then "certifies" that the levees are safe. FEMA looks at the certification, studies it, and if they agree, they "accredit" the levees as safe, and everybody's cool. No flood insurance requirement, and you can develop to your heart's content.

That's a lot of responsibility on the engineer. I have to think the engineer is in deep doo-doo if he turns out to be wrong and the levees fail in a way he should have foreseen.

In 2006, the engineering firm was a local company called Half Associates Inc. They certified the levees. Then the corps came along behind them and gave them a "letter of support" for their certification.

No more. Them days is gone, pod-nuh. There will be no more letters of support. In this dense forest of verbiage, the tallest tree is this sentence: "USACE provides no opinion as to the efficacy of the modification for providing flood risk management benefits." What does that mean? It means it's up to the city to get its engineer to certify. It's up to FEMA to agree or disagree with the certification. The corps ain't in it.

In weeks of asking, I have found no one inside or outside the corps who can tell me exactly why the corps was ever in the certification business. It was always the city's responsibility to get an engineer to certify to FEMA that the levees were safe. Why did the corps ever give the engineer a letter of support in the first place?

It was a significant thing. When FEMA decertified our levees in 2009, they said they were doing it because of the corps' withdrawal of the letter of support. They effectively said: "We were going on the corps' word, anyway, not Halff's. If the corps takes it back, we're out of there, too."

But why did the corps give the letter in the first place? About the best I can gather is that was then, this is now. That was before Katrina, when the corps was willing to bend over backwards to help its client cities get their projects done.

That's history. I suspect Katrina taught the corps a thing or two about what it could expect from the locals in terms of staying loyal when the water rises.

At any rate, the corps, according to this document, is withdrawing itself from the certification of the Dallas levee system, even though the levees here are officially a corps system. Now it's up to City Hall and FEMA -- another marriage made not in heaven.


Advertisement

My Voice Nation Help
31 comments
Brenda Marks
Brenda Marks

Jim, I think the "that was then this is now" position is effectively correct.  It defies logic to think that Katrina, combined with resulting the MRGO and Barge Canal lawsuits, has not had a garganuan effect on Corps current policies and procedures.  This is now positioned squarely as the responsibility of the City of Dallas.  And I'm sure that's how the Corps likes it.

Towangle
Towangle

A couple points of clarification.1) Engineers do NOT certify that the levee is "safe." They certify that it meets FEMA criteria for accreditation (e.g. meets minimum freeboard requirements, meets clear zone requirements). Understandably most engineers are worried that when (yes, when) the levee fails they will be on the hook for much more. This makes certification expensive, which upsets communities who don't feel they can afford expense nor the mandatory flood insurance the comes with no certification. 

3) FEMA does NOT accredit levees as "safe." Accreditation only documents that the engineer followed the procedures and evaluated levee in accordance with FEMA criteria. FEMA does not agree or evaluate the technical analysis done by the engineer. This is deliberate and a good thing for our tax bill. 

2) The Corps is not completely out of the certification business. They will only certify levees that they own AND maintain. If they don't have full control over the levee they don't want to accept liability for the eventual failure. This is understandable given the way some communities maintain their Corps designed levees. Most Corps levees are maintained by the local community, which means the Corps will not be doing much certification moving forward.

Perhaps the biggest post-Katrina push by FEMA, the Corps, and engineers doing floodplain management work is to communicate to the public that levees do NOT provide protection from flooding, they only mitigate risk. Protection implies a warranty that just isn't there. There will always be a bigger flood. All levees will eventually fail. Good maintenance can reduce the probability of failure, but there are no guarantees. 

The process of levee certification by an engineer (or the Corps) and accreditation by FEMA is important. It is the best system we have for evaluating the quality of levees that communities rely on to mitigate their flood risk. It is not in anyone's best interest to allow property owners behind a poorly maintained levee to believe that they have a low flood risk. When the levee fails, everybody pays.

DroveMyChevyToTheLevee
DroveMyChevyToTheLevee

Just to clarify - is the corps getting out of the certification business altogether, or just closing it's Dallas branch? Have you considered that perhaps they are still bending over backwards for City Hall, (or forwards as the case may be) saying nothing at all rather than maintaining their official negative opinion and dooming the levy to FEMA decertification?

Gary
Gary

Was George out looking for old records when he snapped that photo?

Levees.org
Levees.org

Jim, I can help you with that question about the internal floodworks and the Louisiana delegation that Mr. Barry didn't seem familiar with.  It's another of many myths.

Here is what happened in the early 1980s.  The New Orleans Corps District recommended either peripheral barriers (gates) or raising the height of the internal canal walls.  The corps felt that either approach would provide reliable surge protection.  The Corps initially preferred gates only because gates were cheaper. (Raising the internal canal walls was three times the price.)

The Louisiana Congressional law you mentioned is a red herring.  All it did was change the cost share. It didn't block anything. It didn't force anyone to do anything. You can see this yourself in the Woolley/Shabman 2008 Katrina Decision Chronology Section 2-48.

All that corps talk of “we wanted to build gates but they wouldn't let us” is disingenuous.

Heywood U buzzoff
Heywood U buzzoff

JimBo -- The big deal is that the engineer puts his job, his license, and life on the line when he issues his opinion. Something goes wrong and he could be criminally and civilly  liable.  Meanwhile you can just opine that everything is the fault of whites/conservatives/Perry/Bush/Non-South Dallas and still keep you job.  Worst that happens to you is that you have to crank out another column on JWP or how Detroit is superior to Dallas. 

Levees.org
Levees.org

Technicality:  The Barge suit was dismissed in early 2011 as there is no evidence the barge caused the breach. The MRGO suit is on appeal, and we won't know the outcome until late 2013.

Yes, well said, the levee failures during Katrina had a gargantuan effect on national flood control policies and practices including passage of the first ever country-wide Levee Safety Act.  

JimS
JimS

Towangle: you do good clarification.

Smithjones
Smithjones

Read the whole report. There were a many decisions made over time which in hindsight (always perfect!) led to the flooding. Some decisions were made by the Corps in cooperation with the  local interests and the Congress. Some were accommodations that Corps made to design criteria to accommodate local concerns about the Corps being too risk averse or costing too much. Some were made by the Corps itself and were kept for the local interests. We have met the enemy and he is us.

JimS
JimS

Heywood: we agree that engineers are people who have achieved difficult mastery, generally not flibbertegibbets and more often good people than bad people. But they work for engineering firms. And so they're like lawyers, journalists, doctors and shoe designers: ultimately they work for the rainmakers, the people who land the deals that get everybody paid. It's at the deaL-making level where the corners get cut, and you know as well as I do that the engineer who holds his breath and turns purple every time he sees a cut corner is out of a job, just like anybody else.

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

But surely, some engineer would be willing to do this for the right price... 

Imagine being offered, say, $10 million, as a fee to certify the job.  Couldn't an engineer (i.e. one in the "twilight" of his career) set up a sole proprietorship engineering firm, take out liability insurance, then issue the opinion?  How could you ever prove he did anything wrong, particularly if the City of Dallas, which has plenty of engineers on staff, would presumably go along with the plan?

Brenda Marks
Brenda Marks

I agree the lawsuits may not be the direct cause of the changes, but I can assure you that the mere fact that the complaints first survived 12(b)(6) dismissal and then went to trial (one successful -- one not) has a definite effect on government agency risk assessment.

JimS
JimS

Yeah, in the end we all owe a lot to New Orleans here.

BigTex
BigTex

He had to clarify for you a couple weeks back too........POW!!!

Editilla
Editilla

Smithjones, I will grant you the enemy is us, if by "us" you mean the Corps of Engineers as a Tax-funded band of lying engineers. Yes, we OWN them. And, they are Liars. There is nothing more dangerous than a lying engineer, as then all you have is the word of a liar.Please don't fall to the Stockholm Syndrome. The Corps may be "of" this nation, but they are Not "By" and "For" the "People." "We" are not their major stakeholders.

Thank you,Editilla~New Orleans Ladder

Levees.org
Levees.org

Design "accommodations" may have been made but never with the corps saying it had concerns on whether the accommodated designs would provide reliable flood protection.  Again, the corps initially recommended gates because gates was the cheaper option, not the better option. 

We have read the report many times, and we have found nothing showing that the corps recommended (or built) any designs that it felt would not provide adequate flood protection as ordered by Congress.  We have found nothing showing the corps was forced to do anything.

If you have found something in the Woolley/Shabman demonstrating otherwise, please show it us.

Paul
Paul

I'd love to see who would underwrite the errors and omissions coverage on this project with a projected $2 to $3 Billion liability for property loss alone.

BTW Wylie H., I suppose that you wouldn't mind having a near retirement surgeon doing risky surgery on you.

Thanks for demeaning what engineers do.

Editilla
Editilla

Jim, uuhhrrah, actually it is we who owe You on this one. I really appreciate how you've been hammering out the details in this story. I've posted every single one of your pieces on my own blog.

Thanks yous,Editilla~New Orleans Ladderhttp://noladder.blogspot.com/

Admonkey
Admonkey

You're not getting the point of Wylie's comment at all, much less anything I've written, it seems, and I really don't have the time to explain it to you, so I'll leave you with this: would Levees.org have "liked" Wylie's post had the actual intent been to say, "The city's plan should absolutely be to find a shady engineer and bribe them to fraudulently certify the levees"?

http://www.levees.org/

Paul
Paul

Here is where this thread started:

"But surely, some engineer would be willing to do this for the right price... 

Imagine being offered, say, $10 million, as a fee to certify the job.  Couldn't an engineer (i.e. one in the "twilight" of his career) set up a sole proprietorship engineering firm, take out liability insurance, then issue the opinion?  How could you ever prove he did anything wrong, particularly if the City of Dallas, which has plenty of engineers on staff, would presumably go along with the plan?"

This sounds like a bribe to me.

I'll remember your comments next time someone relies on my judgement. Oh well, humans are just as frail as anyone else and are just as susceptible to fraud so I'll go ahead and take the money and pencil whip the forms and not worry about the destruction that I wreck.

If the practice of engineering is no big deal then why the +30 year jail terms for falsifying a few forms?

How much jail time has been served by the officers and directors of AIG, Chase, Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, Merril Lynch and Countrywide for falsifying documents?

The point is when engineers make a mistake it is front page news and the rest of the time people complain about how we "over engineer" everything.

Your opinion reeks of misinformation and a complete misunderstanding of what engineers do and the standards to which we try to hold ourselves to.

If engineers were held to the same standards as everyone else in the cases which you cite, at best there would be a plea agreement in which no admission of guilt or responsibility is made and a simple civil fine is levied.

Since you seem to be taking the position that no engineers are capable of being trusted with public safety since they are just as frail as all other humans, are you willing to take on the responsibility of reviewing the levees and attesting that they are capable of meeting the Corp and FEMA requirements for a 100 year flood event?  Or will you just sign the papers and take the money and run?

Admonkey
Admonkey

To top it, off this thread started off with someone saying that we should essentially bribe an engineer to falsely say that the levees met the requirement.  Is this what you want?

No, of course not (and that wasn't what he was saying at all), but you seemed to think it was an impossibility that fraud could ever happen among the engineering set. I'm not so pollyanna-ish.

The threat of +/-30 and +/-75 didn't prevent the fraud in New York with stadiums and tunnels, and it wouldn't prevent it here with levees and, whatever-- parks built atop Woodall Rodgers. Engineers are just as frail as anyone else.

Wylie wasn't demeaning engineers, he was pointing out the human condition. And, like it or not, engineers are human, too.

Paul
Paul

Well AdMonkey ... no profession is perfect ... in your links it looks like the shortest prison term is on the order of +/- 30 years, and one guy is going for +/- 75 years.

What sort of prison terms have been handed out in the mortgage mess?

To top it, off this thread started off with someone saying that we should essentially bribe an engineer to falsely say that the levees met the requirement.  Is this what you want?

Admonkey
Admonkey

These guys weren't people masquerading as engineers; they were (are) engineers, and they perpetuated a fraud for over ten years involving some fairly prominent public structures, including Yankee Stadium and the Lincoln Tunnel.

http://manhattanda.org/press-r...

http://articles.boston.com/201...

Your point of view that engineers are above the human frailty of lawbreaking and fraud seems awfully naïve to me, but everyone has their blind spots I suppose and, working in the industry I do, I'm fairly cynical about most things. I'm not even sure Jim's not a word-processor that's been hooked up to a particularly efficacious artificial intelligence program.

Paul
Paul

Please go read the inquiry into the Discovery accident ... it was the engineers who were saying not to launch.

Please go to the Texas Board of Professional Engineers website and look at the enforcement actions.  The biggest problem is non-engineers masquerading as engineers.

Paul
Paul

How did we end up slinging mud at each other, Jim?

Besides my life already was pretty much wretched any way ... 8-D

JimS
JimS

Paul, I believe that your everyday life would devolve into a wretched misery if it were not for the Dallas Observer. So there. 

Grumpy Demo
Grumpy Demo

You mean like the engineers the overlooked the problems with the space shuttles' O-rings? Then tried to cover it up? Or the engineers post-Katrina that have installed pumps in levees in NOL that failed their tests anyway?

Some engineers, like some police, journalists, lawyers, banks, regulators, and doctors can be easily bought off, and contrary to your unsupported (by an engineer yet) assertion that the engineering profession is far more ethical than anybody else.

Paul
Paul

I wasn't talking about cops Jim.

Your everyday life is probably more dependent upon engineers than you realize.

JimS
JimS

So are cops perfect, too?

Paul
Paul

Yes, and if they do, we kick them out, none of this plea bargain stuff either.

Admonkey
Admonkey

Thanks for demeaning what engineers do.

Why? Because engineers are above breaking the law and perpetuating fraud?

Now Trending

Dallas Concert Tickets

Around The Web

From the Vault

 

General

Loading...