Almost half of Americans live within range of a levee, one of those 100,000 miles of earthen, sand and gravel walls that supposedly protect you from raging floodwaters. Many probably wish they didn’t.
A July report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, blamed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for making “little progress” in implementing a 2014 law to ensure the safety of our nation’s levees. That failure “could potentially result in safety risks and federal financial risks for disaster relief,” GAO said.
The report specifically cited Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which broke a major levee in New Orleans. Not only did 1,300 people drown, but thousands were also left stranded on rooftops waiting to be rescued by helicopters, or trapped in the overcrowded and dangerous Superdome where the Saints football team continues to play. Eleven years later, one working class neighborhood is still a ghost town inhabited by stray dogs, despite $16 billion in federal disaster relief.
The rebuilt New Orleans levee system remains inadequate to protect the city, according to a former Corps of Engineers commander, who said that in the event of a flood “a lot of people will be inundated.”
“People all over the world watched in horror the human toll caused by that levee failure,” said Sandy Rosenthal, founder of the non-profit Levees.org. “For FEMA and the Corps to have missed their deadlines for implementing the directives of Congress to make our nation’s people safer is unacceptable.”
Could it happen again? The GAO report gave FEMA and the Corps a passing grade for developing a “national levee inventory,” but also said it saw “no action” on any of the other parts of their mandate from Congress, including a “levee safety initiative.”
Even the inventory done so far by the Corps of Engineers, which is supposed to be responsible for maintaining this country’s infrastructure, is troubling. About 1,200 levee systems have been looked at so far, according to Tammy Conforti, the Corps’ special assistant for levee safety. The result: 80 percent were low risk, 15 percent were moderate and 5 percent had a “high to very high risk” of flooding.
Even with only 5 percent of the nation’s levees viewed in jeopardy, the Corps’ findings suggest that millions of Americans are at potential risk of flooding. Most recently a Christmas flood on the upper Mississippi caused millions in damage when 11 levees in Illinois and Missouri were breached and 25 people lost their lives.