Feds make slow progress on flood levee inventory
BURDEAU and JOHN FLESHER - Associated Press |
NEW ORLEANS (AP), October 27, 2011 — More than six years after Hurricane
rampage, authorities have taken only halting steps toward identifying
weaknesses in a nationwide patchwork of levees
intended to protect millions of Americans' lives and property during
potentially catastrophic floods.
Army Corps of Engineers,
accused of building substandard levees and floodwalls that failed when
Katrina swamped the Gulf Coast in 2005, has spent $56 million since then
developing the initial phase of a national levee inventory as required by Congress. The
Thursday was releasing a database with information about nearly 14,000 miles
of levees under its jurisdiction.
But the flood levee inventory doesn't include what is believed to be more
than 100,000 additional miles of levees not covered by the Corps' safety
program. Some are little more than mounds of earth piled up more than a
century ago to protect farm fields. Others extend for miles and are made of
concrete and steel, with sophisticated pump and drainage systems. They
shield homes, businesses and infrastructure such as highways and power
The National Committee on Levee Safety, established after the Katrina
disaster to evaluate the system and recommend improvements, issued a report
in 2009 calling for the Corps to catalog and inspect every levee so
deficiencies could be fixed. But Corps officials say Congress has not
provided enough authority or money to add non-federal levees to the
database, a massive undertaking that would take years.
"The reality is, we don't know how many levees are out there," said Eric
Halpin, the Army Corps' special assistant for dam and levee safety and vice
chairman of the levee safety committee. He acknowledged the inventory
presently includes only about 10 percent of the likely total.
"I think we've done a great job putting forward a state-of-the-art tool,"
Halpin said. "It's a first step. It will be much more powerful once we can
get all the data in there."
For each levee system, the database will include its location, design and
rating following one or more safety inspections.
Inspection ratings from nearly 700 of the roughly 2,000 levee systems under
the Corps' jurisdiction have been added to the database thus far, said
spokesman Pete Pierce.
Of those, 77 percent had ratings of "minimally acceptable," meaning they
have "minor deficiencies" that make the levees less reliable but are not
expected to seriously impair their performance. An additional 11.6 percent
were rated "unacceptable," or likely to fail during a flood, while 11.3
percent were graded as "acceptable," or without deficiencies.
Experts say the government is moving too slowly to complete the inventory.
"We need to be really candid with the American people," said Sam Riley
Medlock, policy counsel for the Association of State Floodplain Managers and
a member of the levee safety panel. "This is yet another class of
infrastructure that is aging and posing risks and we're going to have to do
something about it."
Gerald Galloway, a former Army Corps district engineer and University of
Maryland engineering professor, told a Senate committee this month the levee
network has "significant" problems and received an overall grade of "D
minus" from the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2009. The group
estimated that $50 billion worth of improvements was needed over five years.
"So today hundreds of levees, whose integrity is in question, are in place
in front of communities and properties with little realistic hope of funding
for inspection, repair or upgrade," Galloway said.
Concern about the levees dates to the 1920s and 1930s, when killer floods on
the Ohio and Mississippi rivers led Congress to order construction of more
levees. Many were designed for the biggest flood likely to strike a
particular area within 500 years or even 1,000 years.
But starting in the late 1960s, federal policies have inadvertently
encouraged the building of levees according to a less protective standard,
the safety committee report said. One required financially strapped local
governments to help cover levee building and maintenance costs.
Relatively low death tolls from major floods in recent decades also fed
complacency that ended with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the report said.
Together, they killed more than 1,800 people and caused $200 billion in
damages, spurring calls for a nationwide levee inventory and upgrades.
The portion of the inventory developed thus far includes data on about
13,500 of the 14,700 miles of levees covered by the Army Corps' safety
program. Data on the rest will be added by the end of the year, officials
said. Many of the levees are operated and maintained by the Corps, or were
built by the Corps and turned over to local officials.
John Paul Woodley Jr., who served as assistant secretary of the Army for
public works during the George W. Bush administration, said the Corps has
made good progress on the levee inventory but acknowledged "we're definitely
behind where everybody had hoped we'd be."