In recent years as part of an effort to bolster the nation’s flood protection infrastructure, the Army Corps of Engineers has analyzed and declared more than 200 levee systems across the country as “unacceptable,” resulting in a torrent of criticism from local officials.
Similar disputes have been playing out in a number of cities in recent years as the corps has declared 10 percent of the levees in a new database of 2,200 federal levee systems “unacceptable,” including those protecting people in Dallas, Sacramento, St. Paul and Tulsa, Okla. About 80 percent are rated “minimally acceptable,” with many of those under orders to correct problems or risk falling into the unacceptable category. A mere 9 percent of the levees in the database have been declared “acceptable.” Wow!
The battles are a result of a major effort by the corps to fully report the state of the nation’s levees. The agency has increased the pace of its periodic inspections of the nation’s flood control systems and last fall unveiled the new national database, with ratings of each levee under federal jurisdiction. Reports on the much larger network of nonfederal levees are planned as well.
So what is “unacceptable?” “Unacceptable” does not necessarily mean “unsafe” under most conditions, but the designation signals a heightened risk of failure under extreme flooding. The 65 miles of levees stretching along the eastern bank of the Mississippi here are intended to keep 112,000 acres and about 288,000 people dry; potential economic damages from a serious flood have been estimated at $12 billion.
There is some belief amongst those government bureaucrats affected by these ratings that the corps is simply trying to shield itself from the embarrassment that followed Hurricane Katrina by issuing expensive and unreasonable requirements and oversight. The corps however is saying that is has not changed its standards but have rather improved technologies for assessing risks and therefore getting a more accurate picture of the condition of the soil in and underneath the levees. In otherwords, there is a bit of finger-pointing going on!
The real issue is that local officials worry that the corps’s action will cause the FEMA to alter its flood maps in ways that would require businesses and residents to buy millions of dollars in flood insurance. The classification of unacceptable also means that if a levee’s deficiencies are not fixed and it is damaged in any future flood, the federal government is not obligated to pay for its repair. And right behind that is that they are concerned it will stop or slow growth in these areas.
The culprit in this whole issue is age. Like much of America’s aging and crumbling infrastructure, many levees and just plain old! At 40 to 60 years old, the structures can no longer do what they were designed to do, despite the efforts to maintain them. And that is a sobering thought.