Deficient levees in 37 states could put millions at risk
NEW ORLEANS — Inspectors taking the first inventory of flood-control systems overseen by the federal government have found hundreds of structures at risk of failing and endangering people and property in 37 states.
Levees deemed in unacceptable condition span the breadth of America. They are in every region, in cities and towns big and small: Washington and Sacramento, Cleveland and Dallas, Augusta, Ga., and Brookport, Ill.
The Army Corps of Engineers has yet to issue ratings for a little more than 40 percent of the 2,487 structures, which protect about 10 million people. Of those it has rated, however, 326 levees covering more than 2,000 miles were found in urgent need of repair.
The problems are myriad: earthen walls weakened by trees, shrubs and burrowing animal holes; houses built dangerously close to or even on top of levees; decayed pipes and pumping stations.
The Associated Press requested, under the Freedom of Information Act, details on why certain levees were judged unacceptable and how many people would be affected in a flood. The Corps declined on grounds that such information could heighten risks of terrorism and sabotage.
The AP found specifics about the condition of some levees from federal and state records and in interviews with more than a dozen officials in cities and towns. The number of people who might be affected by a breach could not be determined because there are many different factors in a flood, such as terrain and obstacles.
The severity of the risk from any particular levee depends not only on its condition but the population, infrastructure and property it protects. The Corps is conducting risk assessments of levees under its jurisdiction.
Local governments are responsible for upgrading unacceptable levees. Some local officials say that the Corps is exaggerating the dangers, that some deficiencies were approved or not objected to by the federal government and that any repairs could cost them hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.
“It's just not right to tell a little town like this to spend millions of dollars that we can't raise,” said Judy Askew, mayor of Brookport, a hardscrabble town of about 1,000 on the banks of the Ohio River.
Compared with other types of infrastructure, the nation's levees, within and outside federal jurisdiction, don't fare well. They earned a D-minus for overall condition from the American Society of Civil Engineers in its latest report card in 2009, ranking behind dams, bridges, rails and eight other categories.
The condition of flood-control systems was brought into dramatic focus in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina's rain and storm surge toppled levees in New Orleans and tore up the Gulf Coast. It left 1,800 people dead and was the costliest storm in U.S. history with damage estimated at $108 billion.
Afterward, Congress told the Corps to catalog federally overseen levees, many of which it built and handed over to municipalities to run and maintain. The Corps has spent more than $140 million on inspections and developing the inventory, which is posted online.
As of Jan. 10, the agency had published ratings for 1,451, or 58 percent, of the levees. Of those, 326 were unacceptable, 1,004 were minimally acceptable with deficiencies that need correcting, and 121 were acceptable.
In the AP's examination, among the most widespread issues were:
• Design or construction flaws
Some levees had inadequate “freeboard” — extra height to prevent overflow, which can weaken the landward slope of the levee. For example, the Corps found there was not enough height in a levee along a 20-mile stretch of Mississippi's Yazoo River system, which came close to being overtopped in 2011 during historic flooding of the Mississippi River valley.
• Inadequate or crumbling infrastructure
Many pipes built into levees to drain storm water were made of metal that has rusted. And pumping systems are giving out. In Brookport, inspectors found inoperable pumps and deteriorating pipes in its 6-mile-long earthen levee. Their report said a gaping hole just outside town has put the structure in “critical condition.”
• Failure to control vegetation and invasive animals
Corps specifications require that levee slopes be kept clear of plants and burrowing critters such as ground squirrels and gophers. The tunnels could weaken the walls by providing pathways for water. Thick vegetation can conceal cracks, holes and unstable slopes. A 2010 Corps report found parts of a 2.2-mile-long Mississippi River levee in South St. Paul dotted with trees, brush, weeds and tree stumps.
• Building encroachment
Part of an 11.5-mile levee built to protect downtown Augusta from the Savannah River was incorporated into a park featuring a brick walkway, lighting and landscaping. A townhouse subdivision and access road were built atop the levee, as were sections of a hotel, a church hall and a science museum.
In Toledo, Ohio, about 1,500 homes, patios, stairs and other structures have been placed on the levee that runs along Lake Erie's Maumee Bay. “You name it, it's out there,” said Robert Remmers, a Corps levee safety program manager who oversees Toledo's system.
Eric Halpin, Corps special assistant for dam and levee safety, said the agency had sometimes allowed builders to take liberties that wouldn't be permitted now. The Corps doesn't expect local officials to tear down neighborhoods or hotels, but has orders from Congress to tell them about levee problems and risks, he said.