In 2008, Hurricane Ike devastated the island town of Galveston with head-high floodwaters and 110-mile-per-hour winds that caused billions of dollars of damage and killed dozens of people.
Protecting Galveston isn’t the only goal of a massive series of infrastructure projects meant to limit the devastation from extreme weather. Scientists have modeled worst-case scenario storms that also make clear the potential for devastation in nearby Houston.
Given that the state’s largest city is home to millions of people and the nation’s largest petrochemical complex the region’s vulnerability to deadly storm surges is seen as both a national security and economic issue.
Even though Hurricane Harvey made landfall much farther down the coast in 2017, its torrential rains put large swaths of Houston underwater and drove home the widespread damage a hurricane could inflict on the nation’s fourth-largest city.
“If you think about it, 42 percent of the specialty chemical feedstocks for the entire United States is produced here,” said Bob Mitchell, president at Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership. “Twenty seven percent of the gas, 60 percent of the jet aviation fuel, 80 percent of the military-grade aviation fuel is all produced right in this region that the coastal spine will protect. Not including the 5.5 million people that live in this area.”
A coastal storm barrier has been a topic of discussion and debate for over a decade. Bill Merrell, a marine sciences professor at the Texas A&M University at Galveston began preaching the storm barrier gospel after Ike. In early 2009, just a few months after the storm, he introduced a concept dubbed the Ike Dike which mirrored a Dutch concept of stopping storm surges right at the coast. The Netherlands is a low-lying country that has become the world leader in flood control.
After centuries of fighting back water in a low-lying nation, the Dutch have become the world leaders in flood control. And their expertise is helping Texas design what would become the nation’s most ambitious and expensive coastal barrier.
The Delta Works later declared one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers surrounded a fifth of the country’s population with an ingenious combination of dams, dikes, locks, and first-of-their-kind storm surge barriers. It took decades to finish it all—much longer than expected.
After engineering what they tout as the safest delta in the world the Dutch have ramped up the export of their expertise; they have advised several U.S. states and other coastal areas around the world on protecting lives and property from storms and rising sea levels.
A preliminary design has been approved for a storm suppression system that would run along the Texas coast from Galveston to Corpus Christi but it could ultimately impact the entire country.
The project is the largest civil works project ever taken on by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Not only could it protect the lives of people on the Gulf Coast, it could also help eliminate supply-chain delays across the country by protecting two large ports during hurricanes.
Galveston Mayor Craig Brown said residents have become annoyed with frequent flooding.
“We have nuisance flooding now which means that that flooding occurs even without a flood or tropical storm or a hurricane here,” Brown said.
While flooding becomes worse with heavy rains or hurricanes, Dr. Kelly Burkes-Copes with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers believes a solution is underway.
“The idea and intent is to combine a series of gated structures—kind of what we consider gray infrastructure; you may think of it as concrete and water with natural and nature-based solutions like beaches and dunes and wetlands to basically improve resilience of the entire Texas coast,” Burkes-Copes said.
The Coastal Spine Barrier is a nearly $30 billion project that would allow the Gulf Coast to withstand, endure, and recover from storms quicker and it wouldn’t only protect the locals.
“The intent here is a national issue. For example, if the Houston Port which is the largest port in the nation shuts down as a result of a hurricane, the rest of the country will feel that impact,” Burkes-Copes said.
Rich Byrnes, the Chief Infrastructure Officer at the Port of Houston said the tonnage the port receives is steadily increasing.
“The Port of Houston area moves about 270 million tons. And, to put that into perspective, that’s more than many large states,” Byrnes said.
The Port of Houston and Galveston account for 12 percent of the total U.S. crude oil imports as of May 2018, the Energy Information Administration reports and the Port of Houston has seen a 13 percent increase of overall economic value since then.
“After Hurricane Harvey, the price of gas was elevated for six months nationwide because the time it took to start the refineries and so forth,” Byrnes said.
Despite the backing behind the project, one more obstacle stands in the way of the hurricane barrier or coastal spine project: matching federal funds.
“We have to have a local funding source to not only build the system, but to maintain it,” Brown said.
One funding option available is adding a tax but officials must consider if Texas residents across the state would be okay with paying taxes for a barrier in Galveston.
The only two good words that can be said for a hurricane are that it gives sufficient warning of its approach and that it blows from one point of the compass at a time.