Jim Schutze at the Dallas Observer puts the story together for you, in case you aren’t able to see all the similarities on your own. Now how the hell do we get him to Fort Worth?
I’m sure you remember Hurricane Katrina, but just in case — August 29, 2005, 2,000 people dead, 34,000 rescued in New Orleans alone, $100 billion in damage over 90,000 square miles.
At that time Congresswoman Johnson chaired the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Faced with mounting evidence that federally supported flood control levees had failed in New Orleans, Johnson did the right thing. She pushed for a national review of levee safety all across America.
The technical survey of federal levees found 150 seriously flawed levee systems in the United States. The big oops for Johnson was a finding that the Trinity River levee system through Dallas and right through Johnson’s congressional district was no damn good. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rated the levees in Johnson’s district “unacceptable.”
“Unacceptable” may sound like something a father tells his 13-year-old daughter about her skirt. But if you dug deeper into the maddeningly mild language of the Corps report, “unacceptable” really meant that the levees in Dallas were inadequate to meet even the minimum federal flood safety requirement.
Even deeper in Corps of Engineers documents was their conclusion that the toll from the New Orleans flood – waters that rose in neighborhoods but spared downtown New Orleans – might be far out-stripped in casualties and property damage in a Trinity River flood, which would be a wall of water aimed at the heart of downtown Dallas.
So what happened next? Did those D.C. jackals talk Dallas into lying down for this “unacceptable” peril to life, limb and property? Did Claire Underwood, that hard-eyed, stiff-walking, snotty First Lady from House of Cards come down here and pull the wool over innocent little eyeballs?
Hah! It is good to laugh. No, I’ll tell you exactly what happened. That Corps of Engineers finding that our levee system was unacceptably unsafe flew straight in the face of a big highway-building project along the levees that was heavily favored by the city’s Old Guard, many of whom had been checkbook-backers of Johnson from the earliest days of her political career (hence, the airport concessions), and by the city’s only daily newspaper, which is owned by the Old Guard.
The city of Dallas joined a consortium of cities around the country that were having similar “risk” problems with their levee systems. Together they used their combined congressional heft, of which Johnson was a key element, to jawbone the Corps of Engineers into redefining the word “risk.”
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “hazard, danger, exposure to mischance or peril.” The Corps of Engineers, threatened with having its budget cut off at the waist, redefined flood risk to include the existence of warning and evacuation systems, which, in Oxford English terms, might mean, “hazard, danger, exposure to mischance or peril unless you get lucky.”
And guess how that worked out for the levees protecting residents of Congresswoman Johnson’s district? The Corps of Engineers announced that under the new definition the Trinity River levees in Dallas, previously ruled unsafe at the level of a so-called 100-year flood, now could be deemed safe at the level of a 100,000-year flood but also possibly even at the level of a 400,000-year flood.
So, 100,000 years, give or take 300,000 years. Wow. That’s some levee, considering that only 30,000 years ago Cro-Magnon man was just beginning to move from the Near East into Europe. Imagine some Star Wars bar scene on an asteroid in another galaxy 300,000 years from now: A group of Ewoks, Coruscani Ogres and Derkolos are knocking back ice-cold brewskis, planning a vacation trip together to tour the Amazing Levees of Dallas, the oldest built structures in the entire universe of universes.
In other words, it’s a kind of in-your-face federal bureaucratic middle finger. It’s the Corps of Engineers saying, “Fine, Congresswoman Johnson. Sure. Come up here to D.C. and threaten our institutional existence, which dates from the Battle of Bunker Hill, because we tried to protect your constituents from disaster. You want to keep the levee system you’ve got? Here are the keys to it. Drive safely.”
By the way, Johnson later joined U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, in using a last-minute rider on a national defense spending bill and other legislative sleight-of-hand to entirely exempt the Trinity River from important provisions of federal law protecting wildlife, wetlands, public parks and historical structures, some or all of which might have interfered with the highway project the Dallas establishment had been seeking for 20 years.