“In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers early Monday (August 28) began releasing water from two overfilled reservoirs in west Houston. The release was necessary, officials said, to avoid a collapse of the reservoirs’ dam and inundate downtown Houston, However it put several thousand homes in the area at further risk.”
With those words, the USA Today reported that the water release by the Army Corps of Engineers was deemed necessary to prevent catastrophic dam breaks. The water release was a tacit admission that the structure of the dams was too weak to support pressure from the swollen reservoirs shielding the megacity called Houston. This mind-blowing déjà vu was the rerun of a movie already seen in Lakeview and the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, as well as in Sacramento. Experts say that Sacramento would be no match for a Houston-type rain event.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives a Report Card for the condition and performance of American infrastructure in the familiar form of a school report card – assigning letter grades based on the physical condition and needed investments for improvement. The cumulative grade is D+.
That is stunningly scary and dangerous, considering that the United States, the onetime site of the finest infrastructure in the world, is now ranked 18th. Who does not remember the deadly collapse of the I-35W Mississippi river bridge in Minneapolis on August 1, 2007, killing 13 people. The busy bridge opened in 1967 and carried 140,000 vehicles daily.
You may have seen internet photos of rooftop flooding around Sacramento in mid-2000s. Nashville got a nasty taste of flooding with 20 inches of rain in May 2010. Highway 35W runs within 5 blocks of Our Mother of Mercy Church where I was pastor or ten years.
Just as forewarned in the mock Hurricane Pam Exercise presented to the leaders of the city of New Orleans in 2004, a category 3 hurricane would take out the current levee system. Did it ever! But in puzzling fashion, neither the city nor the Army Corps of Engineers got beyond incessant studies to repair or build anew. Total inaction during the following 13 months indicated paralysis through analysis. The accustomed bent of good old human nature is to go with the flow, not to get ahea of it and control it. Yes, and that includes the Army Corps of Engineers who do great work, but are somewhat daunted by the sheer multitude of levees and dams around this vast country. The other part of the equation is that the Corps is hamstrung by the reluctance of the U.S. Congress to finance needed repairs and updates on our levees and dams. As usual, Congress is penny-wise, pound-foolish.
For instance, Representative Dennis Hastert, speaking before the house, doubted openly whether New Orleans was even worth fixing and/or protecting, since it is in great part below sea level. When he said that Congress could not afford to pay for the coastal problems of restoring and protecting the barrier islands and wetlands, Representative Newt Gingrich sternly warned that Congress could not afford not to help, for New Orleans is the busiest port in the United States, handling 20 percent of all U.S. exports and 60 percent of our grain exports. Further, offshore Louisiana oil and gas wells supply 20 percent of domestic oil production. But the process of drilling and related activities to produce oil and gas has devastated the Louisiana offshore islands and wetlands that have been the best defense against storm surges driven by hurricanes with great force against the Louisiana shores.
The main problem was that the endless crisscrossing of our wetlands with gas and oil pipes allowed saline water to intrude into the wetlands, killing the tough freshwater grass that held the wetlands together. Once the grass roots were killed, Louisiana began to lose its soil at the rate of one football field and hour.
Adding insult to injury, Louisiana was never properly compensated by the government for all its troubles and risks involved in the invaluable production of oil. For all these decades, Louisiana has been treated like an unwelcome stepchild. The Louisiana compensation for all its troubles has been a mere pittance of the actual expenses. Thank God, the U.S. Congress has finally awakened halfway.
Rev. Jerome LeDoux, SVD
“God is love, and all who abide in love abide in God and God in them.” (1 John 4:16)