Blog Archive

Monday, November 24, 2014

In metro Houston, an uphill fight to build a Texas-size defense against the next big storm

by Duff WilsonRyan McNeill and Deborah J. Nelson, Reuters, November 24, 2014

SURROUNDED: Rising seas are eating away as much as 11 feet of shore a year along the unprotected western end of Galveston Island, where rock revetments are the only thing preventing the waves from swallowing some homes along the shore. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

Part 3: Hurricane Ike sent a clear message that the people and vital energy industry of one of America's largest urban areas needed protection from rising seas. Six years later, the only plan with any traction is a professor's Dutch-inspired idea - and it has scant political backing.

GALVESTON, Texas – When Hurricane Ike hit this city on the Gulf of Mexico, William Merrell found himself trapped in a second-floor apartment as storm waters coursed eight feet deep through the floor below. “I had time to think,” said the professor and chair of marine sciences at Texas A&M University Galveston.

One thing he thought about was the Dutch Delta Works, a vast coastal protection system he had seen several years earlier on a trip to the Netherlands.

That led to his big idea: build a 60-mile-long, 17-foot-tall dike that would guard against the next hurricane that hits the long, thin barrier island on which Galveston sits. Like its Dutch inspiration, his idea included massive gates that would swing shut as a storm approached, blocking the 1.7-mile-wide entrance to Galveston Bay. The gate would protect low-lying parts of metro Houston, home to hundreds of thousands of people and an oil and petrochemicals complex essential to the U.S. economy.

Ike hammered Galveston and its 57,000 inhabitants, funneling a surge of water around an existing seawall and into the bay. Eighty percent of Galveston’s homes were damaged or destroyed, including Merrell’s apartment building. The hurricane killed 112 people in the U.S., including 36 in the Houston-Galveston area alone, and caused nearly $30 billion in damage.

The toll left little doubt that something was needed to defend residents and the U.S. economy against the next big storm. “It’s a national security issue,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the nonprofit Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.

Six years on, Galveston and Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, are as vulnerable as when Ike hit. No major projects are under way to fend off surging seas.

Instead, Merrell’s “Ike dike” remains the leading proposal for coastal defense. Nineteen cities and towns lining Galveston Bay back it, but with an estimated cost of $6 billion, the Ike dike is far from a done deal. It has no big money behind it.

For the Ike Dike to evolve beyond wishful thinking, Texas would have to get funding from Congress and support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the go-to federal agency for coastal protection.

But the corps has been sidelined by new spending limits, and Texas’s advocates in Congress have been silent. Major local powers – the city of Houston and the oil and petrochemicals industries – have yet to weigh in on Merrell’s plan or a competing idea pushed by Rice University.

“It’s absurd it’s been so slow,” Merrell said.

The paralysis in Texas reflects a troubling truth: The United States lacks a unified national response to the threat posed by rising sea levels. The policy vacuum leaves vulnerable communities to come up with their own self-defense plans and then hope to snag federal dollars before the next big storm.

“Without some sort of national perspective on this, it pits parts of the country against each other … And Houston is stuck right in the middle of it,” said Richard Luettich Jr, a marine scientist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and chairman of a National Research Council panel on coastal risk. The panel in July said U.S. government agencies have “no central leadership or unified vision” on reducing coastal risk – a failure that extends even to towns that are literally washing into the sea (see related article).

As previous articles in this series showed, the threat of rising seas is not an alarmist prediction. It is already a reality, resulting in increased tidal flooding and worsening storm damage along much of the U.S. coast. And even as the water has risen, subsidies for flood insurance, utilities and disaster bailouts are encouraging development along some the nation’s most at-risk shores.

For places like the Texas Gulf coast, which on average gets slammed with a major hurricane every 15 years, higher waters mean a storm today will tend to be much more dangerous than one of equivalent strength several decades ago.

“Sea level is not going to kill you today,” said Larry Atkinson, a professor at the Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. “It’s the storm surge that comes on top of the sea level rise.”

The probability of a flood in New York like the one that accompanied Hurricane Sandy in 2012, while low, has increased about 50% since 1950, and tripled for parts of the New Jersey shoreline, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a September 2013 report.

That adds up to a lot of people and property at increasing risk.

At least $1.4 trillion worth of property – homes and businesses – sits within about one-eighth of a mile of the U.S. coastline. That number comes from a Reuters analysis of data provided by RealtyTrac. Incomplete data for some areas means the actual total is probably much higher.

More than 40 counties have coastal property worth $10 billion or more, the analysis found. In Miami-Dade County alone, about $94 billion worth of property lies along tidal waters.

Despite so much at stake, Washington shies away from large-scale action to defend the coast. Instead, it focuses on holding the line with smaller, temporary measures – dumping sand on eroded beaches, or building seawalls, breakwaters and berms to protect scattered sections of populated shoreline.

The price of these piecemeal measures is high: New seawalls average $36 million per mile, and a new levee is $10 million per mile, according to a 2010 study by Old Dominion. That doesn’t include maintenance.

But failure to act carries a high cost, too. In Galveston County, nearly 70% of businesses and 75% of the jobs are in hurricane flood zones, according to a Reuters analysis of data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The picture is similar in other parts of the country: In Norfolk, Virginia, 76% of jobs are in hurricane flood zones. In Charleston, South Carolina, it’s a little more than half.

The federal government has typically waited to take major preventive action until after a disaster, when public awareness provides political impetus.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, emergency congressional action gave Louisiana $14.5 billion to build a comprehensive system of levees, dikes and floodwalls to safeguard the New Orleans area. This year, the levee system was accredited as safe enough to allow residents to get cheaper flood insurance.

Similar moves after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 provided much of the $20 billion New York City needs over the next decade to build 250 projects to protect against storm surges.

Many other cities with tens of billions of dollars in assets at risk have no recent storm to point to. They remain vulnerable. Norfolk’s mayor says his city needs a billion dollars for flood gates, raised roads and storm water improvements to protect its shoreline.


Anonymous said...

A horrible project. The beach is retreating rapidly along the Texas coast and would soon be lost if this hard barrier is built. Also, the dike would have to close off the natural pass at San Luis, a fisherman and birdwatcher's paradise, and would be built across tens of miles of marsh and prairie now protected as national wildlife refuges, all to protect two small communities outside of the Univ. of Houston proposal. In reality the Ike Dike is a developer's dream. It would open up vast acreages of land to development. Currently the homes on Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula beyond the sea wall are built on stilts. This works well, but isn't suitable for the massive, residential, built on slab subdivisions that characterize most of Houston. The real money makers.

Anonymous said...

It would actually be "best" if humans stopped resisting the natural course of events - including those that they have had a hand in putting into motion, such as climate change.

Accept the consequences. This is what has to be done "anyway", even if resistance or mitigation or adaption is tried. Accept the consequences. Stop bitching about it too.

More dead, stupid humans will be a good thing in the long run. Think about it. All the stupidity that drove us to build in marshes and high-tide / surge tide regions need to be rectified. All the greed that drove idiotic humans to defy the natural laws of finite resources needs to be readjusted (to reality).

More dead humans WILL be the perfect answer for our incessant greed and stupidity as a species. Stop resisting and start enjoying the "more dead humans" celebration!