Hurricane Ike, 2008

By Bill Dawson
Texas Climate News

For the second time in as many months, Rice University researchers have delivered stark advice on actions that should be taken in the Houston-Galveston region to guard against hurricanes.

The second report [PDF] was issued this week, when the school’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center recommended projects that include building a Houston Ship Channel floodgate and a new levee system, as well as creating a 130-mile wetlands recreation area to serve as a natural buffer zone against storm impacts farther inland.

The report’s listing of both “structural” projects (the floodgate and levees) and “non-structural” steps (the wetlands recreation area) was no surprise.

Debate has been waged in newspaper op-ed columns and in other forums over which of those two basic approaches to pursue since Hurricane Ike brought widespread devastation to the region, especially Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, in 2008. But at a Coastal Resilience Symposium at Rice last year, various experts said a combined strategy was needed.

One of the authors of the new Rice report – Houston attorney and Rice faculty member Jim Blackburn – had called for non-structural methods and criticized a proposed Ike Dike, the leading structural proposal that emerged following Ike, because of its potential environmental impacts. But Blackburn told the 2010 symposium that, like other experts speaking there, he also favored a mix of structural and non-structural protections.

The SSPEED Center report’s recommended structural projects include a Ship Channel floodgate at to protect industries along that waterway from storm surges up to 25 feet; a 20-mile levee along the north-south Texas Highway 146, on the northwest side of Galveston Bay, to protect most bay communities from 25-foot storm surges; and a bayside levee along the eastern, most urbanized part of Galveston Island, which includes the University of Texas Medical Branch. Floodwaters from the bay had inundated parts of the city during Ike.

By contrast, the much bigger Ike Dike project, conceived by marine sciences professor William Merrell of Texas A&M University at Galveston, would extend the famous Galveston Seawall (built to protect the city of Galveston after it was demolished by the 1900 hurricane) along all of Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula to the northeast of the city. It would also construct floodgates at Bolivar Roads (Galveston Bay’s outlet to the Gulf of Mexico between the island and peninsula); at the entrances to the Houston, Texas City and Galveston ship channels; and across San Luis Pass, the outlet to the Gulf from West Bay at the southwestern end of Galveston Island.

Philip Bedient, an engineering professor at Rice and co-leader with Blackburn of the study that led to the report, told the Houston Chronicle that the research team (including experts from other universities) had examined the Ike Dike proposal but concluded it has no “chance of being built in our lifetime.”

[Related coverage in TCN: Experts back combined approach to limit hurricanes’ surge flooding and Will Ike, other storms spur new thinking?]

Gov. Rick Perry created a six-county Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District after Ike to study the possibility of erecting the Ike Dike or some other system to protect against storm surges, but no formal plans have emerged from its work yet.

The district teamed with the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership for a meeting in September where Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said [PDF] protecting against storm surges is “not a pie in the sky concept,” but continues to pose “a question of how do we get there from here. All of our local, state and national leaders must work as a team and commit themselves to getting the money we need for a surge-protection program.”

The SSPEED Center report’s non-structural recommendations include these items:

  • Establishing a 130-mile-long coastal recreation area from High Island [on Bolivar Peninsula] to Matagorda Island [southwest of Galveston Island] to protect against storm surges and boost ecotourism. [In Ike’s aftermath, Blackburn had previously advocated such a plan – creation of a national seashore, a unit of the national park system, to serve both recreational and storm-protection functions.]
  • Using storm-surge data in flood-alert systems to provide early warnings of floods in populous communities such as Clear Lake along the west side of Galveston Bay.
  • Improving public information and public disclosure about the potential hazards of storm surges in low-lying areas, along with strengthening their building codes.

In the earlier Rice report, issued in October, researchers at the university’s Shell Center for Sustainability recommended that Galveston officials concentrate future development on the more urbanized east end of the island – away from its more vulnerable west end, which is not shielded by the existing sea wall and is experiencing annual erosion of three to five feet per year.

Like the SSPEED Center report on hurricane protection this week, the Shell Center report recommended a bayside levee on the island’s east end, but not the full Ike Dike project.

Unlike this week’s report, however, the Shell Center study directly addressed sea-level rise, a major outcome of climate change predicted by scientists. It said, for instance, that rising seas could double or triple the erosion rate on the island’s west end during this century.

“Due to a number of environmental factors like coastal erosion, sea-level rise and hurricanes, Galveston faces an uncertain future,” Rice oceanography professor and Shell Center co-director John Anderson said in an announcement at the time of the October study’s publication.

Responding to the report, Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski told the Chronicle: “Given sea rise and erosion issues, I am aware there will always be a tension between development and open space preservation on Galveston’s west end. I hope that future development is always done in the smartest, most sustainable way.”

The Shell Center’s report said the studies that it summarized are specific to Galveston, but can serve as a model for ocean-facing cities worldwide:

Coastal regions are more rapidly urbanizing than at any other time in history and provide the geographic interface for globalization, whether one is concerned with containerized shipping, energy production and distribution, information technology design and manufacturing, or tourism. One might suggest there is a global network of coastal development, that, not unlike Venice and Lisbon in their day, have as much in common with each other as the cities that lay on their territorial interior. Yet this global littoral is also the most at risk for the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels and transformations to the ecologies that sustain and often protect it from extreme weather and climate related events.

[Editor’s note: The report by the Rice SSPEED Center was based on research funded by Houston Endowment, which has been the major financial supporter of Texas Climate News. William Merrell holds the George P. Mitchell ’40 chair in marine sciences. Mitchell founded the Houston Advanced Research Center, which publishes TCN.]

Image credit: NOAA