Mayor seeks floodwall information

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Graves: Levee workshop not about safety

By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

CANNELTON – Cannelton Mayor Smokey Graves hoped to get some information concerning the future of that city’s floodwall at an Aug. 11 National Levee Safety Program Workshop in Hebron , Ky.

“What I got out of this,” the mayor said, “is I saw a group of people who were looking to secure another level of bureaucracy in the government … they couldn’t have cared less about our levees.”

The News reported previously on difficulties Graves said he experienced in trying to find out why the city is being required to fund an accreditation of the flood-protection barrier. That requirement came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after it was criticized for failing to protect New Orleans-area residents from flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Among the mayor’s difficulties were a failure of FEMA officials to return calls he said he made over a year’s time, even after The News called and got assurances someone would contact him. One of the main questions he’d like to get answered is why the city has to pay approximately $210,000 for an accreditation after the Army Corps of Engineers just conducted what it called a 500-year inspection.

“I did meet up with a gentleman from FEMA,” Graves said Aug. 17 of the meeting he attended the week before. “I guess I showed my displeasures about FEMA and the shabby way they treated this city in the lack of contact that I’ve had. He and I had some words and he assured me that FEMA would contact me, and guess what? They haven’t.”

Graves provided The News a package he received at the workshop, which included an agenda for the day’s activities and background information about a National Levee Safety Program and a National Committee on Levee Safety. Created by Congress, the committee has been working since October 2008 toward a “vision of an involved public and reliable levee systems working as part of an integrated approach to protect people and property from floods,” the handouts report.

Graves said he couldn’t remember the name of the Washington, D.C. official he spoke to at the meeting, but “actually I drug him out of the room. I said ‘I’m taking two minutes of your time, and I want you to go outside with me.’ I kind of worried him,” he said with a laugh, adding that he had to explain he only wanted the two to step into the hallway. “I explained to him how we were being treated by the group in Chicago. It was kind of odd, because he said ‘I guarantee you’re going to hear from our people.’ I said that’s all I’m asking for.”
When the mayor returned to City Hall the following morning, an overnight-mail package was waiting on the clerk-treasurer’s desk, he said.

It was from FEMA, but wasn’t what he was hoping for, he said. “I don’t know if it just happened to be a fluke that that thing showed up, or that was the only contact they were ever going to give us.”
He said he planned to take the package to city attorney Chris Goffinet, who said he’d try to contact the agency.

Also provided to workshop attendees was a draft copy of a report titled “Recommendations for a National Levee Safety Program; A Report to Congress from the National Committee on Levee Safety.” It includes estimates of $6.5 million to launch the program and average annual costs of $170 million.

When Graves was in the workshop, he said, he looked around at the other participants and thought, “I see a roomful of people who are trying to secure employment at the expense of taxpayers by creating this. As I sat there, it was veering away from what issues the cities have with these levees,” he recalled, and toward “spending money on finding out where the other levees were.”

“Why now,” he wondered, “when these levees have been there for years and years?”

The workshop “was almost like an insurance seminar,” Graves said. “They were saying you’ve got to have this accreditation … if you don’t have it, you’ve got to have the insurance, and without the insurance, you might as well pack up and leave now because you can’t survive without that.”

Flood risk is calculated based on the probability they might occur over 100- , to 500-year periods, according to the Report to Congress. A chart in the report suggests that the risk of a flood occurring is 26 percent over the 30-year life of a residential mortgage.

“They’re pulling numbers out of the sky,” Graves said. “Who sat down and did these? It was almost like, ‘we’re going to go back out … and we’re going to put it at this level, and if we don’t get the accreditation, we’re going to sell federal flood insurance all over this nation.’ It was a good scare-tactic seminar to say how important it is to, one, spend money on the accreditation or two, spend money on the insurance. It wasn’t about funding to support the cities’ needs anywhere across this nation.”

Farmers built levees years ago to protect their crops, he continued. In many cases, developers bought the farms to build subdivisions and the levees never became part of any tracking system. That they need to be accredited now “is kind of strange,” he said.

The mayor said he hasn’t seen anything that spells out consequences for not getting accreditation or insurance.

FEMA’s accreditation mandate came with a two-year deadline, as The News reported in February 2009, but Graves said he thought that would be dropped with the passage of legislation extending the National Flood Insurance Program, which included an amendment attached by Rep. Baron Hill requiring FEMA to help cities find funding for the accreditation. The bill, H.R. 5114, hadn’t yet been adopted by the Senate as of Friday.

If it’s enacted, he said, “I don’t think they can hold us to that 24 months, because they’ve not started that process.” In addition, FEMA has to update their maps with all of the new flood-protection systems they can identify, “and that’s like a five- or six-year project, and it’s costly, so there is, I think, a little bit of breathing room. I’ll play this to the very last minute before I commit any kind of monies to this.”
He’d hoped to gain insight about funding options, Graves continued, “but that wasn’t even on the agenda ... the guy from D.C. didn’t want to talk about it.” An attendee from Paducah, Ky., where the accreditation has been done, “talked as if everybody in the country could just go out and write that check. He couldn’t understand the seriousness for a community our size.”

Pointing to the draft report’s title, Graves said there was some discussion about changing the title.

“They don’t like this word, safety,” he said, agreeing that it might imply a guarantee, “so that’s going out the window; you can’t use that word … there wasn’t going to be any misconception that they could guarantee no levee will ever break. What I saw up there was these people looking for another level of government.”

He relayed his level of comfort about Cannelton’s floodwall to meeting participants.

“I told those guys I lay my head down every night not 75 yards from that levee,” he said. “I have never lost one minute’s sleep thinking something’s going to let go over there. That’s because the Corps comes in and inspects it, and we have a guy in the city who’s responsible for it.”

A 1997 flood “was a pretty good indicator” of the wall’s integrity, he said. “It held and it held tight.” Some water got under the wall in Tell City, he recalled, where some lines had been installed under it, “but from our standpoint up here, there was never an issue, never a problem.”

When he pressed for an answer to his question about  spending money after an inspection was just done, Graves said he was told a representative from the proper office “would be in touch, I promise you.”

When he was handed the overnight-mail package, “I said ‘please tell me this is not the contact he was talking about.’ And when I opened it up, it was just another questionnaire on what has been accomplished,” he said.

It included four or five pages on which engineers’ signatures were sought, he said, so he passed it to the city attorney. “I really thought I could have pulled something out of that meeting. I should have known better.”