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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The flooding caused by last week's calamitous storm is bringing renewed attention to the levee system in this country. These barriers are supposed to protect people in flood prone areas.

But as NPR's Joe Palca reports, betting your life and property on levees means taking a risk.

JOEL PALCA, BYLINE: First off, what's a levee? Well, it's typically a structure built out of dirt and stone, and sometimes other stuff, along the banks of a river that's high enough and strong enough to hold back the water when the river level rises.

When you start to explore the health of the levees in this country, you immediately confront a surprising problem.

SAMANTHA MEDLOCK: We don't know where all of our levees are.

PALCA: Samantha Medlock is with the Association of State Floodplain Managers, or ASFPM if you'd prefer. She says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers knows where 14,000 miles of levee are in this country because the corps is supposed to be in charge of their upkeep.

MEDLOCK: Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, has identified approximately 30 to 34,000 miles of levees...

PALCA: Thirty-four thousand miles of levees?

MEDLOCK: Yes, sir. Throughout the nation.

PALCA: But there could be thousands of more miles - no one really knows.

Gerald Galloway is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Maryland. He says the reason there's so much uncertainty is the way levees often come into being.

GERALD GALLOWAY: In many cases levees start from a farmer or a developer, and taking a grader or bulldozer and pushing up a bunch of dirt to create a mound that keeps out frequent flooding from a particular area.

PALCA: Then people start building homes or businesses behind the levee, and it is in everyone's best interest to maintain it. But there are no mandatory national standards for what constitutes an adequate levee. There are voluntary standards set by FEMA and the Corps of Engineers, and the federal government provides an incentive for adhering to them.

GALLOWAY: In order to get the after-the-flood event support, you need to have met the standards of the Corps of Engineers in maintaining your level and its overall structure.

PALCA: But keep in mind that money is only for after the levees fails. There's no federal money for routine maintenance. And from a flood manager's perspective, fixing a broken levee is not always the best way to go.

MEDLOCK: Fixing a levee and solving a levee problem may not be the same thing.

PALCA: Samantha Medlock says no levee will last forever. And a levee that might work in conditions as they are today could be overwhelmed in the future because of climate change.

MEDLOCK: If we simply rebuild right back in place, we are setting the stage for the next major costly, disruptive, tragic disaster.

PALCA: There is a solution that to flooding that doesn't include building levees. Steven Sweeney is president of the New Jersey State Senate. He says there's a community along the Raritan River that flooded last year after Hurricane Irene and this year after Sandy. Rather than build a levee, Sweeney says there's a simpler and cheaper way to deal with the problem.

STATE SENATOR STEVEN SWEENEY: Get appraisals for their homes, write them a check, knock the homes down, and just let it go back to its natural state. I think that's something we really need to take a look at. Because governments have allowed people to build right on to the water and, you know, water has a tendency to move.

PALCA: Samantha Medlock agrees with Sweeney.

MEDLOCK: Ultimately this is about protecting people permanently. No levee provides permanent or complete protection. Buying out and relocating to higher, safer ground is permanent protection.

PALCA: Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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