“If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break,
“When The Levee Breaks I'll have no place to stay.”
– "When the Levee Breaks" by Led Zepplin
Facing a world of rising sea-levels, flash flooding, and extreme weather events isn’t going to be easy; but facing this new reality will be impossible if we don’t know where we stand right now. The federal government is trying to figure that in by inspecting flood control systems around the U.S. Already they’ve found hundreds at risk of failing and endangering people in 37 states — and that’s after only looking at 40 percent of the almost 2,500 structures that protect about 10 million Americans.
From the Huffington Post:
The U.S. 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.
This isn’t a new problem. The Led Zepplin song referenced in the title was a remake of a pre-Great Depression blues song about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Nor is it a problem that is going away.
It was only 2005 when we saw the impact that inadequate or failing levees can have in the face of extreme weather. When Hurricane Katrina raged into the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, the results took the lives of nearly a thousand people (a conservative estimate — others found the human toll likely to be much higher) and resulted in damage that is estimated to be $81 billion. Then, there was Hurricane Sandy late last year, where 110 people lost their lives and damage was estimated at $50 billion.
Keeping levees — and other flood control systems — safe is exacerbated by a lack of funding at local and even state levels. Assessing the risk is a good first step, but we have to figure out how to address the funding issue. And we have to do it not just for levees, but for our wastewater systems, electrical grid, communications systems, and transit and transportation infrastructure that aren’t ready for the new normal caused by climate change, as we saw during Hurricane Sandy. Without action and forward-thinking investment, the results can be (and likely will be) catastrophic for our communities and our economy.