Beach homes

After Hurricane Ike battered Galveston in 2008, storm-carried debris littered areas near imposing beach homes.

By David Barer
For Texas Climate News and Reporting Texas

Work was scarce for architect David Mullican and many Galveston Island builders after hurricane Ike. As damages were assessed, insurance claims disputed and homes were repaired piecemeal, Mullican was out of work for more than a year.

Beyond the structural devastation and slower-than-hoped-for recovery, the storm renewed a perennial debate on the island: how to balance the needs of coastal dwelling Texans – a tough bunch who won’t give up their land to Mother Nature or development policy without a fight – with the threat of a rising ocean and the coastal destruction accompanying it.

Nowhere on the island is the debate fiercer than on Galveston’s West End, a thin strip of land with many of the island’s finest beachfront properties and the area most threatened by erosion and sea level rise.

Studies by Texas scientists suggest infrastructure on the West End will eventually be lost to rising tides and erosion, and some propose that new development should move to the island’s east. Builders question the validity of those scientific findings and, with their livelihoods at stake, believe building should continue.

Straddling the two sides are city officials and the building regulations they must enforce, which are seen by builders as labyrinthine and burdensome and by scientists as inadequate for addressing the dangers of a changing coast and climate.

After navigating the complexities of Galveston building codes, builders like Mullican, who specializes in large, beachfront residences, believe their structures are capable of standing up to hurricanes, the rising sea and erosion.

“All these fearmongers that are saying we shouldn’t build here, we shouldn’t build there, the water is coming up. To me, it’s Chicken Little,” said Mullican. “We can build timeless buildings and deal with what comes.”

Scientists studying the Texas coast have taken a different stance.

John Anderson, a Rice University oceanographer, suggests a fundamental shift of development must take place. Growth, he says, should move from the West End to the East End Flats – a large, unpopulated area on the eastern side of the island, currently owned by the federal government and used to store dredging material. Near Galveston’s historic downtown, the East End Flats is protected by the island’s famous seawall and did not flood during Hurricane Ike, unlike the West End.

In 2010 the Rice School of Architecture and a group of Rice University scientists headed by Anderson published the 192-page “Atlas of Sustainable Strategies for Galveston Island,” which was funded by the Rice’s Shell Center for Sustainability at Rice, an interdisciplinary program launched 10 years ago by the Houston university and Shell Oil Company.

Anderson, the Shell Center’s academic director, says the rate of sea level rise has accelerated over the past two centuries and Galveston’s West End is particularly susceptible to erosion and damage in the coming decades.

A longstanding dilemma

The recommendation in Anderson’s book highlights a longstanding dilemma in places like the West End. Private landowners resent and fight government intrusion into how and where they can build on those susceptible areas, but when a hurricane hits or the sea erodes the land and damages homes, taxpayer dollars are sometimes used to recoup those homeowners’ losses. National wind insurance, for instance, is subsidized by taxpayer dollars.

“What’s at stake is the future of our coast that our children and grandchildren will inherit,” said Anderson.

A case study of the effects erosion will have on private property rights and public access to beaches on Galveston played out recently in the Texas Supreme Court.

In a landmark 2010 decision in the case of Severance v. Patterson, brought by a California divorce attorney who owns beachfront property on Galveston’s West End, the court ruled the public beach easement – the area between high tide and the vegetation line – doesn’t exist on Galveston’s West End because it had eroded into private property.

Without the public beach easement, the Texas General Land Office, the state agency in charge of the Texas coast, couldn’t move forward with a $40 million beach replenishment project – financed by federal, state and local funds – that would have slowed the fast-advancing erosion on the West End. The November 2010 ruling was affirmed at a rehearing in March.

Ironically, it was the same erosion the Land Office endeavored to halt that rendered the agency unable to restore the beaches on Galveston’s West End.

Human-induced erosion factors are a fundamental reason why the Texas General Land Office engages in beach-nourishing projects, which slow erosion that will damage infrastructure, according Jim Suydam, the Land Office press secretary.

Structures like jetties and Galveston’s seawall stymie natural sedimentation and increase erosion. The damming of all major Texas rivers has also disrupted sediment from flowing into estuaries and replenishing beaches. The natural pattern of erosion on Galveston has the island “rolling backward,” meaning it erodes on the Gulf side and grows on the mainland side.

“There are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of public infrastructure that are at risk from erosion that is largely influenced by what … people have done to the coast,” said Suydam.

Potentially disastrous weather has forever been a fact of life on Galveston, a barrier island 50 miles south of Houston. The great hurricane of 1900 still ranks as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. It killed more than 6,000 people and led to the building of the seawall – a 10-mile long, 17-foot high structure protecting a large portion of the island’s southern shore from storm surges. Disaster visited Galveston again in the form of Hurricane Alicia in 1983 and Hurricane Ike 25 years later.

Developments like the building of the seawall and the raising of much of the land behind it following the 1900 hurricane were city-planning success stories that protected the city during subsequent hurricanes and added to the allure of the island. How the city girds for future disasters and the insidious effects of sea level rise that scientists project will depend largely on the government’s development policy.

The primary tool for development policy on Galveston Island is flood insurance rate maps created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Rate maps determine which areas are most likely to flood and who must have flood insurance. The city government uses the rate maps to regulate building in flood prone areas, and banks use them to determine who must have insurance before they lend money, according to FEMA.

Building specifications are guided by the International Building Code and residential codes. The City of Galveston does add amendments that are stricter than those standard codes.

Regulations and recovery

Mullican believes the current regulations are too stiff and the cause of Galveston’s slow, post-Ike recovery. Ike caused more than $20 billion in damage and lowered the island’s population by several thousand. The population has not yet rebounded.

“The city of Galveston has been primarily responsible for the lack of growth on Galveston Island, not the fear of building and not nature itself,” said Mullican. “It is the city of Galveston that is preventing us from standing back up and rebuilding this city because of all the restriction and the delays.”

Chandra Franklin Womack is the vice-president of Aran and Franklin, an engineering firm based on Galveston Island that specializes in structural engineering and windstorm protection on the Gulf coast. She agrees that the codes and restrictions are tough, but only in an effort to bring quality structures to the island.

The codes are strict, there is a lot of paperwork and the process is lengthy, she said.“[Galveston officials] want a really good-quality home. … I think that in their zeal for that, they maybe have gone a little bit too far. I think the intention is good.”

The city of Galveston Building Division has no plans to diverge from the planning and building policies based on the flood insurance maps, said David Ewald, an official working in the agency since 2000.

“As far as the rise in sea levels, the way Galveston deals with that phenomenon is to stick with the base flood insurance plans administered by FEMA,” Ewald said. “That is strictly what we are going by at this time.”

While sea level rise is a natural phenomenon and has been occurring for several thousand years, the general scientific consensus has it that the rate has increased fourfold in the past 200 years, from .5 millimeters per year to 2 millimeters per year, according to Anderson. With a higher sea level, storm surges will be bigger and erosion will accelerate.

These natural processes and dangers are not unique to Galveston.

Communities all along the Texas coast face similar futures, says James Gibeaut, the endowed chair of coastal and marine geospatial science at the Harte Research Center at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi.

“All barrier islands are hazardous to build and live on,” said Gibeaut. But certain parts of barrier islands are better protected and will last longer than others.

Gibeaut creates geo-hazard maps that depict sea level rise and erosion zones with projections of future impacts. For example, he recently created a geo-hazard map for Mustang Island near Corpus Christi, where he said there are clearly areas that should be developed and others that shouldn’t.

The same hazards of erosion and sea level rise exist on South Padre Island near the border with Mexico, Gibeaut said. “There is going to be shoreline retreat in these places that want to be developed on North Padre Island [near Corpus Christi], just like we have on [Galveston’s] West End,” he said.

Environmental lawyer and environmentalist Jim Blackburn of the Houston firm of Blackburn & Carter doesn’t believe rate maps are the right tools to regulate building on the Texas coast, particularly on Galveston Island.

To Blackburn, the rate maps are just snapshots of a moment in time, static representations unable to convey the dynamic nature of the coast on an island like Galveston. By using them, he maintains, officials cannot adapt to changes such as climate change and sea level rise.

“I think the flood insurance rate maps are misleading and they can provide a very poor and unfortunate basis for setting land development policy,” said Blackburn. “Flood insurance maps, however, are accepted in our part of the world.”

Franklin-Womack believes a person or family’s enjoyment of a seaside home mitigates the fact that a home could be lost in a storm or from the rising sea, and she believes Texans will continue to build on the coast.

For Blackburn, it isn’t landowners’ development on the Texas coast itself that is troublesome, so much as what will happen after storms, erosion or sea level rise.

“I am perfectly OK with letting people build on their property,” he said. “I do not want to subsidize their failure.”

[Editor’s note: The Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) – the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that publishes Texas Climate News – contracted with Rice University’s John Anderson to write a chapter of a report about Galveston Bay. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had commissioned the report, “The State of the Bay.” In a widely-reported dispute last year, TCEQ officials wanted references to sea level rise removed from Anderson’s chapter, but HARC and Anderson opposed the change. In a compromise, the published report included data  from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, documenting a rising sea level at Galveston. Texas Climate News’ editors, who are not HARC employees, are solely responsible for all editorial decisions involving TCN’s content.]


David Barer, an intern at Texas Climate News during the summer of 2012, has written for the Associated Press, NPR’s StateImpact and Reporting Texas, a digital media initiative of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Barer is a graduate student in journalism at UT.

Image credit: Federal Emergency Management Agency