Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Day The Levees Died

Who can forget Don McLean’s classic American Pie? And that catchy refrain that went...

So, Bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry

Were you one of those who asked, “What’s a levee?” I know I was. But now, because of Katrina and New Orleans and now the terrible flooding of communities along the Mississippi, we know all too well about this word that is again
in the news.

In the case of New Orleans, so much of our focus and outrage was on the rescue effort (or lack of it) along with the rebuilding (or again the lack of it). But while helping people in an emergency should obviously be our first priority, there are a couple of vital questions that become overshadowed. Could we have prevented these tragedies? and How can we prevent them from happening again?

In my view, there are two main reasons that these two questions are often put on the back burner. One is that it’s all too easy to say that these were natural disasters and you can’t fight Mother Nature. The other reason is that talking about the infrastructure just isn’t sexy enough for most people to care. If say, a year ago, someone were to suggest that we put more time and money into repairing our bridges before they start to collapse and kill people, it would get little more than a yawn. That is until the
bridge disaster last year in Minneapolis finally made infrastructure a presidential campaign talking point — at least for a while.

As for the vital questions pertaining to New Orleans,
Senate Committee Hearings have determined that the Army Corps of Engineers’ flawed design of the levees greatly contributed to the disaster. And to add insult to injury, there are serious questions about whether there are design flaws in the replacement levees.

Although the flooding on the Mississippi is an ongoing story at the time of this posting, CNN’s Drew Griffin presented
a most interesting report that questions whether the levees built to control the Mississippi are actually causing worse flooding. According to the report, East St. Louis, IL will not likely have to face the worst of the flooding because so many levees have failed upstream thus relieving the force of the river on levees for those communities downstream. This directly questions the design soundness of the system of levees on the Mississippi since if the levees upstream had held, the communities downstream would be in more jeopardy of having their levees fail instead!

This begs the question of whether it is a sound practice to develop and live in lands that are so prone to flooding. It’s easy to dismiss this all by saying that if people are foolish enough to live in these areas, they deserve what they get. But I think that greatly oversimplifies the problem. No matter what ones political persuasion is, I think most of us can agree that it is a legitimate function of the federal government (in this case, the U.S. Corps of Engineers) to design and maintain these levees for the protection of its citizens. Therefore, it makes sense that we should be able to rely on the people designing and maintaining these levees to help decide where it is safe to live.

Reclaiming land from the rivers or seas isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Netherlands has done this for centuries. But the big difference is that having made a choice to do this, they have committed themselves to doing it right by not skimping on money or engineering as in their
Delta Works flood protection system. After all, people’s lives hang in the balance!

Why can’t we here in the US see this in the same way? If it is determined that a system of levees to reliably protect an area is either impossible or impractical, we should just admit it and relocate the affected people to safer areas. But if we determine that properly designed levees will indeed work, then we owe it to the people we are protecting to do the job right without trying to cut corners.

Right now, we are in no-man’s land where we are doing little more than a half-hearted effort whose priority appears to be more about trying to save money than protecting lives and property. For example, it only makes sense to rebuild the levees in New Orleans to withstand a Category 5 hurricane to protect it against future storms like Katrina as advocated in
this link. Instead the argument has been raised that we cannot afford to strengthen the levees beyond a Category 3. This is even more wrong if you accept the judgment of climatologists who are predicting the occurrence of more strong storms in the future due to climate changes from the warming of our atmosphere.

Few of us want to see government programs come back that are as extensive as the
WPA or CCC which were part of FDR’s New Deal to fight the Great Depression. But for a country that is now going through tough economic times, investing in the infrastructure would not only create jobs but leave us and future generations (the ones who will be stuck with the bill for our deficit spending) with something worthwhile in the form of improved and safer levees, bridges and the like. If nothing else, it’s sure as hell a better way to get something of lasting value out of our tax dollars than spending it on wars or even those economic stimulus checks!

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