By Doug Struck
Fifteen of the 68 federally inspected levees in New England are in “unacceptable” condition, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
But should those who live or work behind the levees be afraid? The answer is muddled.
Michael Bachand, the levee safety manager for the Army Corps’ New England District, said the rating does not mean the levees are on the verge of a dramatic collapse that would create widespread flooding. Many of New England’s levees were built after massive flooding from hurricanes in 1938 and 1955, and are extremely sturdy, he noted.
But the “unacceptable” rating means “we believe there is some major problem with the project that would lead it to not perform as intended,” Bachand said in an interview in the Corps’ Concord, Ma., office.
That problem could be plants and trees that have put roots into an earthen levee or rodents that have tunneled into it. Other problems include clogged drainage systems or broken pumps that would prevent water on the wrong side of the levee from being removed, he said.
“It could be as simple as maybe some of the interior drainage systems have not been operated or maintained,” he said. “You can get flooding a number of ways. It’s all designed to act as a system. Without one acting properly, you still could get flooding.”
Bachand’s boss at the Washington headquarters of the Corps is more cautious.
“Getting an ‘U’ on an inspection doesn’t mean you have to worry about a catastrophic failure,” said Eric Halpin, special assistant for dam and levee safety for the Corps, in a phone interview from Washington. “What that means is in just a visual inspection of the levee we found a number of issues, some minor and sometimes major, that the levee is not well operated or maintained.”
The Army Corps helped build 14,700 miles of levees in the nation, and regularly inspects them—although the maintenance is the responsibility of local officials. Private and locally built levees are not inspected by the Corps. The federal inspection results were pretty quiet until levee failures during Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005.
Under the heat of congressional criticism, the Corps stepped up the inspections and made public the results of those inspections on the web in the National Levee Database. The database was announced with much fanfare in October, 2011. It was a “state of the art tool” and “the authoritative database that describes the location and condition of the nation’s levees, and the potential consequence behind those levees,” according to the Corps’ press promotions.
Towns and municipalities responsible for maintaining the levees have been pressed to fix and repair deficiencies, often costing millions of dollars. While the Corps cannot require such repairs, an “unacceptable” rating means the federal government will not help fix any damages to the levee from a flood, and it may put at risk the flood insurance offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for those in the potential flood zone.
But Halpin, in Washington, says the ratings on the list are not what they seem. Are you saying an unacceptable rating does not reflect the risk, he was asked. “That’s exactly what I’m saying,” he replied.
Local jurisdictions are supposed to evaluate the risk, and the Army Corps is beginning to compile a more complete report on the risks of the levees, starting this year, he said.
Seven of the 37 federally inspected levees in Massachusetts are rated “unacceptable,” in Gardner, Canton, Lowell, Westfield, Quincy, Adams, and North Adams.
At least two in Torrington, Conn., earned that rating, as did levees in Ansonia, Waterbury and Watertown, Conn., Hartland Me., Lincoln NH, and Bennington, Vt.
(Photo via Associated Press: Many of New England's levees were built after the great 1938 hurricane. Workers struggled to create sandbag levees in Hartford after the storm.)
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