Saturday, February 27, 2010
By Mike Fitzgerald
For years, agency had said it had information showing they are unsafe
In a dramatic turnabout, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has acknowledged to U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Springfield, that it does not possess any information as to the worthiness of flood protection levees in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties.
This acknowledgment contrasts sharply to FEMA assertions for more than two years indicating the agency had possessed data showing that metro-east flood levees are functionally useless — therefore justifying new FEMA flood zone maps that would lead to sharp increases in flood insurance rates for owners of 150,000 properties in the American Bottoms flood plain.
In a Feb. 24 reply to Durbin’s request for FEMA to turn over all data on the structural integrity of metro-east flood levees, agency Administrator W. Craig Fugate wrote that “FEMA does not independently generate the information you requested. In fact, we have tried to obtain much of this information from a variety of sources but to date have been unsuccessful.”
Fugate said in that letter that federal regulations state that information on levees must be supplied by “the community or other party seeking recognition … of a levee system.”
Les Sterman, the chief engineer of the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council, in Collinsville, rebutted Fugate’s claim.
“As far as we know they never asked for it from the levee district,” Sterman said. “They did, however, ask for it from the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers, and the Corps of Engineers didn’t give them anything. Because we saw what they gave them, which is nothing.”
FEMA spokeswoman Cat Langel sidestepped questions posed by the News-Democrat as whether the agency had withheld or misled metro-east officials concerning what it knew about local flood levees.
“FEMA’s top priority is the safety of the communities we serve,” Langel wrote in an e-mail Friday.
A central part of the agency’s commitment, she wrote, is “to ensure that people are aware of the natural hazards and risks that exist in their communities, including flooding.”
In December, FEMA officials from Chicago held a series of public meetings in the three counties during which they talked about the agency’s rationale for raising flood insurance rates, Sterman recalled.
“When we met with them, what they said was they did not ask the levee districts (for information),” Sterman said. “They asked the Corps of Engineers.”
Sterman said he was not surprised by Fugate’s acknowledgment the agency does not have any data regarding the worthiness of the levees.
“I would’ve been surprised to hear they had any information,” said Sterman, who, along with metro-east elected officials, is considering whether to file a federal lawsuit to force the FEMA to reveal its flood levee information. These deliberations are taking place after FEMA had refused to respond to requests for the levee data that are contained in federal Freedom of Information Act requests the flood district had filed in early November.
Meanwhile, Durbin on Friday called for a meeting with Fugate and other top federal officials — including U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville — to discuss the lack of information that is necessary to certify five metro-east levees: the Chain of Rocks, Fish Lake, the Metro East Sanitary District, Prairie Du Pont and Wood River.
“Without complete information about the structural integrity of the levees, it would be irresponsible for any agency to certify them as safe or unsafe,” Durbin said in a press release.
FEMA’s letter to Durbin came in response to a Jan. 5 letter from the Illinois senator to FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calling on them to reveal publicly their data on metro-east levees.
Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army assistant secretary, replied that several interdependent Illinois levee projects that comprise metro-east levees “have been identified as deficient in their ability to provide the design level of protection. They are in need of rehabilitation and repair.”
Sterman said FEMA’s sharp change of message points out a “fatal flaw” in the flood mapping process — that FEMA can base decisions with severe economic consequences on the absence of information, rather the presence of damaging information.
“The problem is, all the information we have on the levees, including the corps’ annual inspections, show that they’re actually OK,” he said.