On August 23, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) declared that some 40 miles of levees protecting California’s capital of Sacramento and 15 other areas do not meet federal maintenance criteria. Therefore they are not eligible for federal aid if damaged in a storm. Local agencies, however, see contradictions in USACE policy.
The USACE has long accepted various encroachments on some area levees, according to Tim Kerr, general manager of the American River Flood Control District, who told the Sacramento Bee that “now the Corps is saying they no longer find those acceptable.” USACE maintenance criteria calls for the removal of trees and shrubs from levees, but the Bee noted that the Corps has not only allowed trees on California’s levees, but “planted thousands of trees itself as part of its own levee rehabilitation and repair projects.”
USACE began taking a hard line on levee maintenance in the wake of Katrina in 2005. But nothing the federal Corps ever did prevented that storm from inflicting massive damage. And FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, turned Katrina into a catastrophe. Before FEMA even showed up, Wal-mart and other private business were on the scene with crucial aid. In “Wal-Mart to the Rescue,” Steven Horwitz noted, “Wal-Mart’s successful response to Katrina, along with the failure of FEMA and other government agencies, seems to confirm the more general conclusion of modern political economy that private institutions better mobilize resources than do public agencies.” Federal disaster aid is bad public policy.
In California FEMA did nothing to improve flood protection post-Katrina, but they did require flood insurance for anyone whose mortgage is backed by the federal government. If a house is paid off, and without a mortgage, the homeowner does not need to buy flood insurance, but FEMA does not explain that, and federal rules, unlike those of private insurers, do not allow homeowners to cancel the policy.
As it happens, FEMA uses USACE data and will decide whether Sacramento keeps its 100-year-flood certification. That could well increase insurance premiums in an economically depressed region. Meanwhile, the USACE levee declaration may help the federal agency justify its existence but will do little or nothing to enhance public safety.