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Standstill on nation's levees threatens lives, property

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Almost half of Americans live within range of a levee, one of those 100,000 miles of earthen, sand and gravel walls that supposedly protect you from raging floodwaters. Many probably wish they didn't.

A July report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, blamed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for making "little progress" in implementing a 2014 law to ensure the safety of our nation's levees. That failure "could potentially result in safety risks and federal financial risks for disaster relief," GAO said.

Rising water in Louisiana threatens levee 02:31

The report specifically cited Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which broke a major levee in New Orleans. Not only did 1,300 people drown, but thousands were also left stranded on rooftops waiting to be rescued by helicopters, or trapped in the overcrowded and dangerous Superdome where the Saints football team continues to play. Eleven years later, one working class neighborhood is still a ghost town inhabited by stray dogs, despite $16 billion in federal disaster relief.

The rebuilt New Orleans levee system remains inadequate to protect the city, according to a former Corps of Engineers commander, who said that in the event of a flood "a lot of people will be inundated."

"People all over the world watched in horror the human toll caused by that levee failure," said Sandy Rosenthal, founder of the non-profit "For FEMA and the Corps to have missed their deadlines for implementing the directives of Congress to make our nation's people safer is unacceptable."

Could it happen again? The GAO report gave FEMA and the Corps a passing grade for developing a "national levee inventory," but also said it saw "no action" on any of the other parts of their mandate from Congress, including a "levee safety initiative."

Even the inventory done so far by the Corps of Engineers, which is supposed to be responsible for maintaining this country's infrastructure, is troubling. About 1,200 levee systems have been looked at so far, according to Tammy Conforti, the Corps' special assistant for levee safety. The result: 80 percent were low risk, 15 percent were moderate and 5 percent had a "high to very high risk" of flooding.

Even with only 5 percent of the nation's levees viewed in jeopardy, the Corps' findings suggest that millions of Americans are at potential risk of flooding. Most recently a Christmas flood on the upper Mississippi caused millions in damage when 11 levees in Illinois and Missouri were breached and 25 people lost their lives.

Homes remain flooded to the roof by flood waters from Hurricane Katrina Monday, September 5, 2005, in St. Bernard Parish near New Orleans. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Addressing those risks faces a major obstacle, however: Roughly 85 percent of levees in the U.S. aren't within the Corps' control. Many of these levees are in private hands, while others are owned by Native American tribes, states and municipalities, Conforti said, which is why the Corps can't just step in and make repairs. It must work with levee owners, who are responsible for developing a plan for evacuation if the levee breaks.

One bright spot -- "There's been a lot of progress in risk communication," she said.

Communication is likely to continue to be a problem, said the GAO, since the federal government does not have a program overseeing all levees across the country. Even more troubling: "No national standards exist for levee safety."

"Local governments, communities and private levee owners are responsible for maintaining their levees," said Alexa Lopez, the press secretary for FEMA, which maps flood zones. "And citizens are responsible for knowing the risks and for taking steps to safeguard their homes, businesses and families."

Illinois flooding puts 14,000 acres under water 02:21

While neither the Corps nor FEMA disputed the GAO's critical findings, private flood insurers said that it wasn't the agencies' fault, since neither has the mandate nor the money to do the job.

"They were set up to fail," said John Dickson, president of NFS Edge Insurance Agency, a unit of Aon (AON), this nation's largest insurance broker. He said the Corps of Engineers had already spent the $5 million it received from the federal government in doing the inventory and now needed another $5 million.

"You can't maintain these levees on a shoestring," Dickson said. "It's human nature not to think about it until it happens -- but then it's too late."

Both agencies told the GAO they had no plans for moving ahead with the safety measures for levees because of "resource constraints," bureaucratic parlance for lack of funding. "We'll work at the pace of the appropriations we receive," Conforti said.

Around the country, one of the most pressing problems could be the Herbert Hoover Dike, a 143-mile earthen levee that surrounds Lake Okeechobee in central Florida, which has been eroding for 50 years. It's been dubbed the "billion-dollar berm" because that's what it would cost to repair.

But if the structure is not fixed, it could cost even more. In 1928, hurricane water poured out of the southern end of the lake, and about 2,500 people drowned.

Levees are often just dirt walls composed of sand, which washes away easily, or clay, which resists water a little longer. Only a few are backed by concrete. The GAO said that the average age of levees under federal oversight was 50 years, but many non-federal levees could be much older -- 100 years or more. And some have pumps that could, and probably have, gotten clogged with debris.

The failure to ensure the safety of America's levees could be just a precursor to the main event, when FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program -- which pays those who have been washed out by floods and submit insurance claims to the federal government -- comes up for renewal in 2017.

FEMA is already $23 billion in debt from previous floods like Katrina and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. What happens when the next levee breaks?

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