- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

Strolling beside the Reflecting Pool with the Lincoln Memorial in the distance, it’s easy to overlook a gentle rise in the landscape a few yards to the north.

The small berm is part of an inconspicuous levee system designed to protect world-famous museums, the National Archives and federal office buildings from flooding.

But the nearly 70-year-old system is at risk of failing during a major storm, which federal officials say could result in as much as 10 feet of water in parts of downtown and cause $200 million in damage.

Dozens of communities coast to coast are facing similar warnings as authorities re-examine the country’s outdated flood-control infrastructure.

In the District, the flood zone begins near the base of the Washington Monument and stretches to a neighborhood south of the Capitol. The area includes the White House Visitor Center, National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the Justice Department headquarters.

Built on reclaimed swampland with few natural barriers against high water, the District always has been vulnerable to flooding. And experts say the threat is worsening.

The sea level has risen about 2 feet since the city was founded more than 200 years ago at the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, said James Titus, of the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, urban development has increased rainwater runoff.

Congress attempted to address the problem in the 1930s, authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to build a levee between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument with dirt removed for the Reflecting Pool. But gaps were left where several roads slice through the barrier.

For years, using sandbags to plug the holes during the threat of high water was considered acceptable. But the Corps toughened its standards after Hurricane Katrina breached New Orleans’ levees in 2005.

In 2006, the Corps cited deficiencies with 122 of the 2,000 levees in a federal rehabilitation program. Three of the levees were in the District, including the Potomac Park levee near the Reflecting Pool.

Federal officials estimate that it will cost billions to make sure levees are strong enough to withstand a 100-year flood. Otherwise, nearby homeowners could face mandatory flood insurance and developers will have to comply with stricter building codes.

New maps in the District would lead to the review of projects such as the construction of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which would be partly in the new flood zone.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recently agreed to rescind new flood maps for the District after officials pledged to build an improved flood-control system by November 2009. But the maps could be reinstated if the city falls short, said D.C. Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning.

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