Action urged on building storm surge barrier system

 Bay Area Coastal Protection Alliance

Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership President Bob Mitchell, from right, welcomes State Sen. Larry Taylor and Harris County Commissioner Jack Morman to press conference to talk about protecting the Galveston Bay coast at Sylvan Beach Pavilion in La Porte.

By Mary Alys Cherry

It’s been six years since Hurricane Ike’s storm surge devastated the Galveston Bay area, and while many are still recovering, little has been done to avoid a repeat.

“It’s time we pulled together and worked as a team to find a solution,” Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership President Bob Mitchell said as leaders from cities all around the bay came together to urge some action.

With the opening of another hurricane season, they held a press conference at the newly restored Sylvan Beach Pavilion in La Porte to announce the formation of the volunteer nonprofit Bay Area Coastal Protection Alliance and suggested a way to spare the area somewhat from the ravages of another bad storm.

“What we learned most from Ike was it’s not the wind that we need to be concerned about,” Mitchell said. “It’s the storm surge. This morning, we will go back in time to revisit Ike’s fury and then segway into a solution that will prevent such tragedy from ever occurring again.”

6 MILES LONG

BACPA wants to build a six-mile-long storm surge protection barrier featuring a series of levees and gates and sand-covered dunes – with hardened cores — extending from High Island westward to San Luis Pass to help save lives and property. It would encompass the existing Galveston Seawall and include a large gate that would close the mouth of Galveston Bay when a major hurricane approached, stopping storm surge from entering the bay and flooding coastal communities and the Houston Ship Channel.

Officials taking part in the forum included State Sen. Larry Taylor, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, Harris County Commissioner Jack Morman, La Porte Mayor Louis Rigby, BACPA Vice President Vic Pierson, BAHEP’s Mitchell and Dr. William Merrell, marine scientist professor at Texas A&M Galveston.

Other officials in the audience included State Rep. Ed Thompson, Mayor Jon Kenney of Taylor Lake Village, Mayor Michel Bechtel, Mayor Pro-tem Mike Fowler and Councilman Richard Helmley of Morgan’s Point, Councilors Geri Bently and Dan Becker of League City, plus representatives of a number of elected officials.

The coastal barrier system is based on the concept used to protect cities in The Netherlands from storms in the North Sea and was first envisioned for use here by Dr. William Merrell, marine scientist professor at Texas A&M Galveston, who found the devastation in Galveston “beyond the imaginable.”

THE IKE DIKE

Dr. Merrell quickly realized that regional protection was desperately needed and called for a gate across the mouth of Galveston Bay to hold back storm surge, giving it the name, the Ike Dike. His continued call for action led to the creation of BACPA, which is championing the effort to build the surge protection barrier. “If we had acted as quickly as New Orleans did after Katrina, we’d have it done now,” he said.

“The U.S. spent $16 billion on New Orleans and they have only one-sixth of the population of the Bay Area,” Sen. Taylor pointed out. “In the region’s current unprotected state, a direct hit from a hurricane would cause a human and economic tragedy of epic proportions. Between the 6 million residents, their properties, jobs and businesses, coupled with the Ports of Houston, Texas City and Galveston and the nation’s largest petrochemical complex, there is too much at stake. I’m asking all of us to come together on this.”

Cost of the system is estimated between $4 and $6 billion, which pales in comparison with the $35 billion in Ike damages and the $100 billion Ike could have cost had it hit just a few miles west of where it made landfall. The federal government would pay approximately 85 percent of the cost of the storm barrier with local and state resources required for the remaining 15 percent.

If, for example, the project costs $5 billion, the federal government would invest $4.25 billion and state and local sources would pay $750 million.

7-1 Mayors Jon Keeney

Mayors Jon Keeney of Taylor Lake Village, Michel Bechtel of Morgan’s Point and Louis Rigby of La Porte, from left, were among a number of elected officials at the press conference introducing the newly chartered Bay Area Coastal Protection Alliance.

CARLA RECALLED

Recalling the devastation of Hurricane Carla in 1961, Mitchell pointed out that “the damage then was the same as Ike in 2008 . . . The Houston-Galveston region was unprotected then from storm surge and we are no more protected today, 53 years later, than we were when Carla hit.”

BACPA Vice President Vic Pierson noted that “Hurricane Ike caused loss of life and more than $35 billion (to date) in property and environmental damage – even without a direct hit. The original forecast predicted 25-foot storm surges that could have killed hundreds, left thousands homeless and jobless, and caused economic damage around $100 billion. We dodged a bullet with Ike, but we won’t dodge it forever in our current unprotected state.”

Based on a study from the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas, BACPA said a direct hit from a hurricane to the Houston-Galveston region would cost $73 billion in gross state product, more than 863,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in annual state revenue. The storm could decimate the Port of Houston, which is the busiest U.S. port in terms of foreign tonnage and second busiest in overall tonnage. The storm could obliterate the nation’s largest petrochemical complex, which supplies 40 percent of the America’s fuel and 60 percent of its specialty military fuel.

A U.S. PROBLEM

Commissioner Morman asked the crowd to picture the Johnson Space Center under water, warning that it could happen. “With the Port, the Ship Channel and our refineries shut down for months, the entire country would face gasoline shortages, sky-rocketing prices and crippled international trade. Clearly this is a problem for the United States, not just southeast Texas.”

Both Judge Henry and Mayor Rigsby said they feel the area cannot afford to not take action – that it’s not a matter of if another massive storm will hit but when and that we will spend far less on prevention than on damages.

The cities of Bayou Vista, Deer Park, Dickinson, Galveston, Jamaica Beach, Kemah, La Porte, League City, Morgan’s Point, Nassau Bay, Santa Fe, Seabrook, Taylor Lake Village, Tiki Island and Texas City have all pledged their support of the concept.

Currently five studies are underway and when completed in 2015 BACPA will begin reaching out to federal, state and local sources for help as needed.

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