Levees in 27 States at Risk of Failing; Could Trigger Flood Insurance Mandate

By Beverley Lumpkin | February 5, 2007

The Army Corps of Engineers reported last week that 122 levees from Rhode Island to California are at risk of failing, potentially affecting thousands of people and requiring millions of dollars in repairs.

Residents of communities near some levees could be in danger and have to pay more for insurance, said Butch Kinerney of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s national flood insurance program.

Should the Corps determine a levee is at risk of failing, homeowners in the area could be required to buy flood insurance if repairs are not made.

Twenty-seven states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had threatened levees, though only two had more than a handful. California led the list with 37 and Washington state had 19.

Nebraska had one on the list: a Republican River levee near Bartley in Red Willow County. Corps officials in Kansas City, Mo., said that the levee was no longer under federal control.

Though many levees were in rural areas, some were in metropolitan regions including the District of Columbia; Springfield, Mass.; Stockton and Sacramento, Calif.; and some suburbs of San Francisco.

California’s capital, Sacramento, faces significant flooding threats due to the deterioration of levees protecting the flood-prone Central Valley.

In November, voters approved the issuance of $4.1 billion in bonds for repairs. California has about 10,000 miles of earthen levees; most are owned by local reclamation districts without the money for repairs.

The list did not include any levees from Louisiana. The New Orleans area was ravaged by flooding after Hurricane Katrina caused levees to collapse in 2005.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., sent a letter to President Bush complaining that levee work in New Orleans is underfunded and the Corps was far behind on several projects.

But Maj. Gen. Don Riley, director of civil works for the Corps, told reporters that levees in the New Orleans area would be adequate once the current work is completed. He said Mississippi River levees are subject to very stringent programs and none in Louisiana shows any deficiencies.

Riley said he could not say how many people potentially could be at risk from the levees on the list. He offered no estimates for the potential costs of repairs, but said the federal government would not cover the bill for local governments.

“It would be a community responsibility to seek the funding that’s required,” Riley said. He said the Corps does not have the money to maintain levees owned by communities, and keeps up only those on federal land.

Larry Larson, director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, said it is clear the repair bill could run into the millions and that thousands of people are potentially at risk from the levees on the list.

Rhode Island had two deficient levees, both in Woonsocket. Alan Brodd, the city engineer, admitted the levees had not been well maintained but said the city cannot afford the estimated $1.5 million for repairs.

Riley said each community had a one-year grace period to correct the deficiencies, but must file a plan within three months for how it intends to repair the problem.

Communities near the levees have been notified they have received an “unacceptable maintenance inspection rating.” Problems can include animal burrows, trees, erosion and the movement of flood walls.

The Corps has told communities they need to take care of routine levee maintenance, Larson said, adding he was glad the Corps was publicizing the problems.

“The feds are saying, ‘Wait a minute, we haven’t been doing our job,”‘ Larson said. “‘We better get on top of this. Your people are at risk. You need to get something done.”‘

The Corps’s Riley said the list covers only levees with unacceptable maintenance problems. He said a larger project authorized by Congress last year will produce information about other levees that may have stability problems or “if the environment around it has changed.”

FEMA’s Kinerney said people living near the levees should have an evacuation plan, a family emergency plan and a disaster supply kit, along with flood insurance.

The Corps is responsible for inspecting about 2,000 levees covering about 13,000 miles.

When the Corps’ inspections turn up deficiencies, it notifies FEMA, which can declare a community to be in a flood plain. That requires homeowners in the flood plan to buy flood insurance.

If residents bought the insurance before the community’s designation changes, they could pay a lower rate.

FEMA can give communities up to two years to correct the problems or contest the finding that the levee is not sound. During that period, residents are not required to purchase flood insurance.


Associated Press writers Erica Werner in Washington, D.C., Samantha Young in Sacramento, Calif., Cain Burdeau in New Orleans, Michelle Smith in Providence, R.I., and Nelson Lampe in Omaha, Neb., contributed to this report.


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