Whether it's mankind-assisted global warming, long-term cyclical weather patterns or just plain bad luck, we seem to be in for an era of superstorms on the order of Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, storms strong enough to overstress our precautions to prevent or mitigate their damage.
It's only a slight exaggeration to say that our infrastructure policy seems to consist of waiting for a bridge to collapse or a levee to fail before we get around to fixing it. If Congress is as sluggish as it was at coughing up the money to repair Sandy's devastation in the most densely populated region of the country, even that may no longer be our policy.
That's why an Associated Press report, based on Freedom of Information Act requests, on the state of the nation's flood-control levees makes for disturbing and -- given a few bad breaks with the weather -- potentially expensive reading.
As of early this month, the U.S. Corps of Engineers was almost 60 percent of the way through inspecting and cataloging federally overseen levees, the maintenance of many of them being the responsibility of the municipalities they protect. This is the first-ever such inventory.
Of the 1,451 flood barriers inspected and for which ratings were published, 326 were rated "unacceptable," 1,004 were "minimally acceptable" even though they had deficiencies in need of correcting, and only 121 were deemed "acceptable." The AP said that the hundreds of structures at risk of failing endangered people and property in 37 states, meaning that it's hardly a problem confined to the better-publicized coastal regions.
The biggest culprit, of course, is a lack of money to maintain the systems. After Katrina, California approved $5 billion in bonds to upgrade the financially strapped state's flood-protection system, but the AP says the state still needs $12 billion to finish the job. Some smaller riverfront towns simply don't have the money to maintain the systems the Corps built for them.
There are other factors as well, such as design flaws, shoddy construction, inadequate maintenance; worn-out pumping stations relying on rusted-out pipes to handle flood overflows; and allowing trees, bushes and burrowing animals to take over vulnerable levees.
And in some places the municipalities are complicit, allowing construction on the levees and development on flood plains.
With this current weather cycle, or, if you prefer, run of bad luck, we're going to pay, one way or another. It would be a lot cheaper to begin paying for prevention now rather than pay for wholesale reconstruction and relocation later.
Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.