For millions of Americans living in flood-prone places, all that stands between the waters of mayhem and safety is a pile of dirt.
Earthen berms, dikes and levees identical to those overtopped and breached in scores of places along swollen Midwest rivers in recent weeks, make up the vast majority of flood protection efforts across the United States.
Well before record floods overwhelmed scores of levees in the Mississippi River watershed, government officials at all levels had raised concern about the ability of such structures to protect property and lives.
But a review by Scripps Howard News Service of levee oversight and funding at the state and national level suggests the new focus still may not be sufficient to overcome decades of neglect.
Among the findings:
— No one at any level of government knows where all the levees are, much less the condition of thousands of the structures. By some estimates, there may be 20,000 to 30,000 levees scattered across the country, but no one is sure.
— Maintenance of levees, even those operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is years and billions of dollars behind schedule.
— Fewer than half the states have any agency responsible for levee safety and only 10 have a statewide listing of flood control works.
— Relatively few new levees have been built in recent years. And many of those that have are not designed to protect existing homes and businesses, but to defend new development in flood plains — against the advice of conservationists and emergency management officials.
"The levees are already bad and they are going to get worse,” said Mike Parker, a former civilian head of the Corps and now a lobbyist in Washington. "This is not a joke. We know this is going to happen. The levees were built in the first place because there were (flooding) problems."
Growing numbers of levees around the country are being found wanting as tougher scrutiny from the Corps, state regulators and private engineering firms reveals defects in design and maintenance.
Even where levees are well-maintained, officials note that the likelihood of flood levels rising higher than the tops of the berms seems to be increasing, due to a combination of more frequent and intense rainfall and changes in land use.
Most of the levees that have been overtopped were built lower because they defend mostly farmland rather than cities.
But places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Iowa City saw rivers crest more than 10 feet higher than levels reached in the great flood of 1993 — making it impossible to pile sand bags high enough or fast enough on their levees to keep the water out.
Yet the Corps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — which is requiring levee owners to certify their dikes’ ability to hold back at least a 100-year-flood as part of a national program to redraw flood hazard maps — are backing away from the notion that communities can sandbag their way to safety if levees prove too short or develop leaks.
Congress, in light of levee failures in New Orleans in 2005 and the potential for similar catastrophes elsewhere, recently ordered the Corps to conduct a first-ever national levee inventory.
"Many of the property owners behind those levees may not even be aware that the levee protecting them is poor and likely to fail,” Larry Larson, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, told Congress last year in testimony calling for a levee inventory.
"Many private levees were built to protect farmland from frequent flooding or to improve cropping of the land. Over time, development of homes or other buildings has taken place in the areas which would be inundated if those levees overtop or fail,” Larson said.
It was disastrous flooding in the Mississippi Valley from the turn of the century through the 1940s that thrust the Corps into flood protection design, construction and maintenance — roles that continue today, although at a diminished pace.
The Corps now is responsible for about 2,000 levees, some federally owned or built. Others are locally owned and maintained, but are included in a special national rehabilitation and inspection program that guarantees the government will help rebuild structures that fail — but almost always only back to the level of protection the levee had before it was overtopped or broke.
It was from this group of levees that the Corps in late 2006 identified 122 projects around the country that have major maintenance problems ranging from animal burrows and erosion, to faulty culverts and movement of floodwalls.
Levees actually owned and maintained by the Corps made up 18 percent of the list of problem levees, even though they represent less than 2 percent of all the levees reviewed.
Eric Halpin, the Corps special assistant for dam and levee safety, said the seemingly disproportionate number of deficient Corps-operated levees stems from the absence of information about the rest of the nation’s dikes.
Only seven of the levees overtopped or breached along the Upper Mississippi basin and its tributaries are federally maintained, but 20 of 25 along the Mississippi itself are part of the Corps rehab program and none were declared deficient in the 2006 report on levees in that program.
Fewer levees that were overwhelmed by floodwaters in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa are part of the federal program, since most are to protect farmland from smaller streams. Even among those under federal scrutiny were only rated as capable of holding back 20 to 100-year floods. In many spots, river crests, particularly in Iowa, exceeded or matched 500-year flood levels.
Even when desperate volunteers oiled the sandbags high enough, days of pressure from waters many feet above flood stage proved too much for many berms. Days of levee sandbagging around Winfield, Mo., in late June was undone by the undetected work of a few burrowing muskrats, officials say.
While the Corps is attempting to tend to all its levees, maintenance and repairs for many are backlogged because of budget restrictions.
Steve Stockton, deputy director of civil works for the Corps, discussed the problem with officials at a June conference on levees in St. Louis. "The bottom line is we have $60 billion in needs and authorized projects, and we get $1.5 billion to $2 billion a year to chip away at that."
The Corps’ budget for operations and maintenance of levees, along with new construction, has been shrinking or flat for much of the past decade. This year it’s $2.3 billion.
"The Corps takes the blame for everything, but they can only do what they can with the money they are given,” said former Corps chief Parker. "We’re spending way less for maintenance than we were in the 1970s. But Congress won’t pass a bill that really addresses infrastructure because it’s not sexy."
Parker, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi, was fired from his Corps position in 2002 after warning Congress that a $2.8 billion budget cut to the Corps sought by Bush administration officials would have a "negative impact" on the national interest.
Added levee chief Halpin: "There is a lot of catch-up to be done. Katrina was definitely a wake-up call."
While the known deficiencies in levees are worrisome enough, equally troubling are the unknown vulnerabilities.
"What we know that we don’t know is a big concern. We expect additional deficiencies to be identified," Halpin said.
"Our portfolio is incomplete until we find the rest of the levees out there that aren’t under any federal authority for inspection or assessment,” he said.
Under last year’s water resources legislation, the Corps is supposed to work with other federal, state and local agencies to develop a national levee inventory.
Recent surveys by the National Association of State Dam Safety Officials and the Association of Floodplain Managers found that only 10 states keep any listing of levees within their borders. Only 23 report having a state agency responsible for levee safety.
The trouble with levees, and with the Corps’ historic approach to building them, many critics say, is that the structures are a patchwork of protection of varying height and quality, extending over thousands of river miles.
Halpin also notes that while the National Levee Safety Act gives the Corps authority to inventory levees, "it didn’t really expand our authority to inspect levees." That’s still left either to the states or the levee owners themselves.
The legislation authorized the Corps to spend up to $120 million over six years on the inventory, but Congress has yet to appropriate any money for the work itself. Next year, the Corps budget calls for spending $10 million on the effort.
"It’s typical that Congress moved quickly to identify the problem and now is slow in coming up with the money to follow through,” said Gerald Galloway, a professor of engineering and levee expert at the University of Maryland. "This can’t be entirely a federal problem. Floodplain management and land use is and should be a function of state and local government."’
Galloway is among many flood protection experts who argue for targeted removal of levees and floodwalls that are not sound. He says the cost of upgrading and maintaining some levees is more than it would cost to move what they’re supposed to protect.
In some areas, retreat has been national or state policy.
After the 1993 Mississippi-Missouri basin floods, FEMA spent more than $150 million to buy out or move more than 12,000 property owners whose land had been submerged by the floods.
But the lure of easily developed bottomland is still powerful — and the Corps’ cost-benefit system for evaluating projects still favors new levees to protect new development.
In the St. Louis metro area, since 1993 some 28 square miles and at least $2.2 billion in new construction has gone up on land that was under water 15 years ago, but now lies behind newly-built levees.
"Building a levee for a community simply ‘certifies’ that this is a great place to build more things,” said Robert Criss, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. "These structures are not infallible, and when the levees fail — and they will, carefully though they are built — we just have more infrastructure in harm’s way. It’s not a very thoughtful approach."
Halpin said beyond the structural integrity of levees, other elements affect the risk of failure, including the nature and intensity of storm events.
Some experts say the Corps has even less control over a changing climate. "We’ve calculated things like the 100-year-flood, the 500-year-flood based on current amounts of water in the river, not with any global change factored into that,” said Tim Kusky, a professor of natural sciences at St. Louis University.
Most climate change models anticipate an increase in the frequency and intensity of storms, bringing more rainfall over much of the United States outside the Southwest. By some estimates, the Mississippi could be carrying 50 percent more water within the next 30 years.
"The bottom line is, any community in this watershed that’s relying on a levee built to some perceived level of protection faces increasing risks for more flooding in the years ahead,” said David Conrad, an analyst with the National Wildlife Federation, which wants the government to boost floodplain building and setback standards through the National Flood Insurance Program.
Many experts agree the solution is to pull back from floodplains wherever possible, and to engineer cities like the lowest parts of New Orleans for repeated dunkings in the future, rather than put up ever-higher walls to protect them.
"People think if they’re behind a levee designed and built to a certain standard, they’re protected, but they’re probably not,” said Robert Bea, a levee expert at the University of California, Berkeley.
"They’ve set the bar too low for most communities, and in many others, they have to realize that it may be cheaper to rebuild some of the natural defenses against flooding than keep building bigger and better levees. We need to respect nature first, engineering second."
E-mail Lee Bowman at Scripps Howard News Service at bowmanl(at)shns.com.