Across the US, hundreds of federal flood control systems are at risk of failing, endangering millions of people and property across 37 states.
When Hurricane Katrina passed over New Orleans in 2005, more than 50 deficient levees were breaches, killing 1,464 people who were in close proximity to the flood control systems. Another natural disaster could subject hundreds, thousands or even millions more Americans to the same fate if the government doesn’t address the issue.
Inspectors discovered 326 deficient levees across the US, whose likely failures could leave millions of people dead. A breach could demolish homes and cost local governments millions of dollars. By failing to repair the defective structures, the US is choosing to risk the lives of its citizens who are walking on eggshells with their proximity to the flood zones. In its first ever inventory of the nation’s flood control systems, inspectors raised the overdue alarm that hundreds of levees may be unable to regulate water levels and prove useless in face of heavy rains. Such populated cities as Washington DC, Sacramento, Dallas, Cleveland and many others might be flooded at any moment.
The US Army Corps of Engineers has only issued ratings for 58 percent of the 2,487 flood control systems, which means inspectors could still discover hundreds more deficient levees. Many of the earthen levees are crumbling under the effect of trees, shrubs and animal holes. Decaying pipes and pumping stations could also cause the flood control systems downfall, while some of the levees are dangerously close to houses or even have houses built on top of them.
Although the Army Corps has no estimates as to how many people are endangered by the defective systems, the 2,487 federally regulated flood control systems protect about 10 million people. The failures of several hundred levees could therefore impact millions of US residents.
While upgrading the deficient flood control systems is the responsibility of the local governments, many small towns don’t have enough money for such a costly undertaking.
“It’s just not right to tell a little town like this to spend millions of dollars that we can’t raise,” Judy Askew, mayor of Brookport, told AP. The small Ohio town has a population of about 1,000 and is built on the banks of the Ohio River, making it particularly vulnerable to flooding if its levees were to give out.
Overall, US levees have long scored poorly when inspectors examined the structures. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s levees an average rating of D-, ranking them behind bridges, rails and dams.
Of the 1,451 levees inspectors have rated since Jan. 10, only 121 were acceptable with no need of any upgrades. About 1,004 were minimally acceptable with several deficiencies, and 326 were completely unacceptable.
Some local officials have denied that their flood control systems have any problems, claiming the Army Corps was exaggerating the conditions. But with repairs costing millions of dollars, local officials are hesitant to acknowledge the problem if they can’t afford to fix it.
“There is no money available,” Askew said. “There’s no way we could raise even a 25 percent match if [the feds] covered the rest of it.”
The federal government has no plans to pay for the deficient structures, but a congressional advisory board panel in 2009 recommended that Congress invest some of its budget in levee repairs. To date, legislators have not come up with a plan to deal with the problem.
“This is going to be a national problem and it just hasn’t dawned on people how big it’s gonna be,”Jeffrey Mount, a levee management specialist and founder of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, told AP. “We’re in a never-ending cycle of flood and rebuild.”