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Of the images forever seared into the national consciousness, several stand out — airliners crashing into the World Trade Center, the anguished faces of American citizens stranded at the New Orleans Superdome, begging their government for water, help, anything in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

These are events, along with many others — good and bad — over the past two and a half centuries that have molded this nation into its present shape. From Dust Bowls to Super Bowls, it’s what we are.

Late last month, a federal judge made a startling and precedent-setting ruling about the cause of the flooding that devastated much of New Orleans — the federal government was to blame.

Specifically, faulty design and construction of the network of levees designed to keep the Gulf of Mexico out of the city greatly exacerbated Katrina’s damage. Even more specifically, the judge accused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of being directly responsible for the storm damage.

Corps of Engineers officials have reserved comment, vowing that the ruling will certainly be appealed. If an appellate court upholds the lower court decision, it’s almost as certain this issue will be argued and finalized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The reason we’re certain the path this decision will take is that, if upheld, it will have dramatic effects on federal flood-control policies, and on the federal government’s history of flatly refusing to take responsibility for its agencies’ mistakes.

We’ve had a taste of those flood-control policies here on the Central Coast. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed and built the Santa Maria River levee, then, a half-century later, determined the levee wasn’t safe, broadened the area’s designated flood zone, which might have cost local property owners thousands of dollars more a year in flood insurance premiums.

We can say “might have” because the federal government has kicked in the funds to repair the levee, which without actually saying so, is a tacit admission that a federal agency failed in its design/construction responsibilities.

Levee design and construction is a sore spot for both public and private agencies. A couple of years ago, a Corps of Engineers study identified 146 levees nationwide that were in imminent risk of failing, if confronted by even minor duress.

California had 42 of the suspect levees on that list, by far the greatest number of any state in the nation. Oregon was a distant second on the list with 14 questionable levee structures.

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This state’s levee situation is, indeed, dire. Experts say if only a few of the major levees failed, California’s losses would easily exceed the monetary damages caused by Hurricane Katrina.

A good example is the levee system from the San Francisco Bay area to Sacramento, which protects more than a half-million people and 4 million acres of farmland from inundation. State water officials call that old, leaky system “a ticking time bomb.” California voters have approved nearly $5 billion in bonds to fix that system.

Aging, vulnerable levee systems are among this nation’s top infrastructure problems. The Corps of Engineers owns and maintains about 14,000 miles of levees, and another 85,000 miles are in private hands. Most are more than a half-century old — and prime targets for the next 100-year flood, hurricane storm surge or earthquake. When those events occur, that time bomb explodes.

Our federal government has a plate full of funding priorities, and fixing the nation’s levees should certainly be among them. Perhaps the court ruling putting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the federal government on the hook for damages caused by inferior design and construction will draw attention to this problem once and for all.

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