As Hurricane Dolly drew a bead on the South Texas coast and the mouth of the Rio Grande, workers began building a new section of the controversial U.S.-Mexico border Wall atop levees the government had already declared unsafe. The levees have been decertified, and if a hurricane of keen aim and sufficient strength hits, South Texans can expect the same treatment New Orleans citizens suffered.

You can read the formal letters of levee decertification (they are pdfs) at the Texas Progress Council, here and here. Notice their dates: November 1 & 2, 2006.

But it remains shocking that the Bush Administration, three years after the Katrina tragedy, continues to ignore the safety of millions of coastal residents while pandering to racist, right wing nationalists by building a border wall everyone knows won’t work in the end anyway.

So far, levees that officials at all levels agree are deficient and dangerous have not, thankfully, been challenged by the storm, which wobbled northeast of the river and may have produced less river flooding than expected. The danger remains, however, from this storm’s continued rainfall. Or from the next storm.

Two million or more people live in the region. So far, residents of Mexico fleeing floodwaters have been spared the physical pain of being turned back into harm’s way by U.S. border agents who threatened to refuse entry to evacuees from flooding areas. We have been spared the moral calumny, as well.

The fact that the storm is hitting near the US-Mexico border is raising another issue. The Border Patrol has vowed to check people evacuating from the Rio Grande Valley for documentation when they appear at the checkpoints between Brownsville and San Antonio, and although the agency has backed away from that threat, Congressman Ciro Rodriguez says evacuees should be ready.

"If they’re fleeing, they’d better flee with their passports, in all honesty," Rodriguez said.

The dangers have been known for years. Some small steps have been taken. But they are very small, insignificant, really, when measured against the need. And this isn’t just a need of convenience. People will die if these levees are not secured.

Here’s how the Houston Chronicle’s Dudley Althaus described the terrifying prospects last year:

Though the state has been spared a major storm since 1990, government agencies and outside critics have warned that heavy rains from a hurricane, or even a tropical storm, near the mouth of the Rio Grande could well cause catastrophic flooding.

In such an event, the river’s levees could be topped or toppled, existing flood plains overwhelmed. Towns and cities in the Rio Grande Valley that house more than 2 million people could be inundated. Thousands of people could be displaced, unknown numbers killed or injured. Property worth billions of dollars could be destroyed.

"The levees are too low to sustain a 100-year flood on either side of the river," said Tyrus Fain, whose Rio Grande Institute is taking part in a federally funded study of ways to mitigate the impact of floods and other hazards on the border. "It’s a disaster waiting to happen."

The International Boundary and Water Commission – or IBWC, the joint U.S.-Mexico agency that oversees the Rio Grande where it serves as the border – has estimated that $125 million is needed to bolster the levees along the last 100-mile stretch of the river. But Congress has allocated less than $5 million annually for the task.

Late last year another $10 million was appropriated by Congress. And one county, Hidalgo, decided to fund its own repairs by passing a $100 million bond issue in 2006.

The Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, promised the Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 $65.7 million to build the Wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The money isn’t here yet.

Local residents didn’t want the Wall. They wanted to be safe from floods. When they discovered they could make themselves a little safer and finally shake loose a little money from the Bush Administration, they figured they’d make the Wall a levee. Like magic, here comes the money.

County leaders had struggled for years to secure federal funding to repair the region’s ailing levee system. Their efforts took on new urgency last year when new Federal Emergency Management Agency maps threatened to declare most of the county a flood plain. So, when it became clear months ago that the border wall would go up despite their objections, county officials jumped on the opportunity to make the best of a losing battle.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called the Wall/Levee agreement a sign of how he was willing to compromise with local officials. But if I’m reading the small print right, he’s getting his Wall while the levees remain in dangerous disrepair. Some compromise.

It’s almost impossible to describe the callousness of the Bush Administration, which obviously learned nothing from Katrina. Or simply doesn’t care. Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry has put on a better shadow-show of concern. He’s quick to call out the Guard and likes to appear commanding on camera. But Perry has had a 700-page Rio Grande disaster remediation plan – "Cover the Border" – on his desk for more than a year. Without his approval, the 75 communities who put the plan together (along with Texas A&M International University, the Rio Grande Institute, and H20 Partners) cannot apply for grants to make the necessary improvements in border safety.

Among the more bone-headed moves by FEMA was solving the levee problem by broadening the area considered flood-prone in insurance maps. That’s like ordering passengers to buy flight insurance after their aircraft is in a nosedive.

So what is the federal government doing instead? The Federal Emergency Management Agency is considering re-mapping southern Hidalgo County in a flood zone where it would become mandatory for home and business owners to purchase flood insurance. So instead of being proactive and fixing the problem that currently exists, it seems now that feds are going to make us fork over more money for more insurance and let the insurance companies pay for the damages.

The Hidalgo County government site summarizes this horror story pretty well.

It details how U.S. Sen. John Cornyn finally came to the Valley and toured the levees after the Department of Homeland Security announced they would built their Wall on top of the unsafe levees.

Most local officials, hungry for federal and state money to solve their urgent problems, will be careful about biting the hand that might, maybe, feed them, however meager the meal. This will be especially so if the Valley escapes tragedy during Hurricane Dolly. Almost all of these local officials have been working hard to solve the problem. And they deserve credit.

But what are they to do when ignorant bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas delay and obstruct critical infrastructure investment while insisting upon the building of a Wall that would remind the world of Soviet-controlled East Berlin and their wall there, except this one won’t even work.

The cables and the networks don’t cover near-disasters. They may not have covered the Category 5 Katrina as they did had they not been standing in the streets when the water rose to their waists and the bodies floated by.

Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith