The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

January 17, 2013

Deficient levees found across America

— NEW ORLEANS (AP) — 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 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.

The AP found specifics about the condition of some levees from federal and state records and in interviews with more than a dozen officials in cities and towns. The number of people who might be affected by a breach could not be determined because there are many different factors in a flood, such as terrain and obstacles.

Local governments are responsible for upgrading unacceptable levees. Some local officials say that the Corps is exaggerating the dangers, that some deficiencies were approved or not objected to by the federal government and that any repairs could cost them hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

"It's just not right to tell a little town like this to spend millions of dollars that we can't raise," said Judy Askew, mayor of Brookport, a hardscrabble town of about 1,000 on the banks of the Ohio River.

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