NEW ORLEANS — Inspectors taking the first-ever inventory of flood control systems overseen by the federal government have found hundreds of structures at risk of failing and endangering people and property in 37 states.
Levees deemed in unacceptable condition span the breadth of America. They are in every region, in cities and towns big and small: Washington, D.C., and Sacramento Calif., Cleveland and Dallas, Augusta, Ga., and Brookport, Ill.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to issue ratings for 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 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.
The severity of the risk from any particular levee depends not only on its condition but on the population, infrastructure and property it protects. The Corps is currently conducting risk assessments of levees under its jurisdiction.
Compared with other types of infrastructure, the nation's levees, within and outside federal jurisdiction, don't fare well. They earned a D-minus for overall condition from the American Society of Civil Engineers in its latest report card in 2009, ranking behind dams, bridges, rails and eight other categories.
The condition of flood control systems came into dramatic focus in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina's rain and storm surge toppled levees in New Orleans and tore up the Gulf Coast. It left 1,800 people dead and was the costliest storm in U.S. history with damage estimated at $108 billion.
Afterward, Congress told the Corps to catalog federally overseen levees, many of which it built and handed over to municipalities to run and maintain. The Corps has spent more than $140 million on inspections and developing the inventory, which is posted online.
As of Jan. 10, the agency had published ratings for 1,451, or 58 percent, of the levees. Of those, 326 were unacceptable, 1,004 were minimally acceptable with deficiencies that need correcting, and 121 were acceptable.