How Prepared Is Too Prepared?

If it won't be this bad, how prepared should we be?
How prepared is too prepared? The County Council voted unanimously this week to put $34.6 million toward preparing for the possibility of flooding in the Green River valley. Thanks to damage found after a storm last year, the capacity of the dam, built in 1961 to stop near-regular flooding in the valley, is much lower than it used to be.

If the dam reaches capacity, the Army Corps of Engineers has to let water out. King County Executive Kurt Triplett told reporters earlier this fall that there is a one-in-three chance the Army Corps will have to do so this winter. That could leave 30,000 people homeless, do billions in damage, and bring multi-million dollar industrial areas to a screeching halt.

For good reason, there are million-to-one shots for which we don't build contingencies for or put ourselves $27 million in debt to bond-holding investors (which is how the county plans to raise most of the money.) But the City of Seattle took a lot of heat for not plowing roads during a freak snow-storm, the likes of which didn't exist in area record-keeping. You could argue Greg Nickels was voted out of office because people couldn't get to work for a week. But putting money toward more snowplows when the city is $72 million in the red and unlikely to see those kind of sledding conditions for another 50 years is at best unnecessarily paranoid and possibly irresponsible.

When the Corps started talking about the possibility of flooding, the agency used the phrase: "it is possible that levees in the lower valley could be overtopped." At that, visions of bodies floating down streets in New Orleans flooded council members imaginations. At a Sept. 9 briefing on the dam, Councilmember Julia Patterson said she didn't want another Katrina on her hands.

The Corps is a little more vague than Triplett about the likelihood downtown Kent will be underwater saying only that the dam did not reach full capacity, even in the heavy rains last year. (Though remember, that capacity is lower this year.) The Corps is also working on temporary strengthening the sides of the dam and hopes to have that finished by Nov. 1. So now it's about as clear as the murky water expected to maybe flow through Kent.

So now the County is selling bonds in the hopes that we will get federal money to pay them back, explains Triplett spokesperson Natasha Jones. But if they don't get the money from the feds, the county will have to pay it back out of the already-stressed general fund. That fund is already projected to have a multi-million dollar deficit next year. Tom Douglas attended a public hearing in Kent on behalf of Food Lifeline, which gets part of its budget from the county general fund and says it won't be able to provide 665,000 meals next year if that money is cut.

When to prepare and when you're wasting the money is a hard thing to determine and always ends up being judged in hindsight. But it's a little distressing that it's so politically unfeasible to question the amount of money the county plans to spend on the dam when other meals for the hungry are on the chopping block.

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