By Mary Alys Cherry
This month will mark the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Ike’s visit to the Bay Area, leaving behind about $36 billion in damages. Yet, despite numerous warnings and calls for action, almost nothing has been done to protect the Galveston Bay area from another devastating blow.
Despite the lack of urgency on the part of the state and federal governments, Dr. William Merrell, the George P. Mitchell chairman of Marine Sciences at Texas A&M-Galveston, continues to warn the public of the pending danger and explain that a storm surge barrier protection system similar to one which has successfully protected The Netherlands from storms would protect the entire area.
He shared his thoughts with the crowd at the monthly Bay Area Houston Transportation Partnership luncheon at Cullen’s Upscale Grill that included a number of area mayors and public officials, prefacing his remarks by noting that a major hurricane hits this area on average every 14.7 years.
“It’s time to plan for it,” he warned, explaining that Ike did not hit where it had been forecast to make landfall. “We dodged a bullet.” Had Ike made landfall further west and not moved eastward at the last minute, he said, the Galveston Bay area would have taken a direct hit, creating a major disaster for both Texas and the nation.
“This would have put the storm surge at 25 feet up the Ship Channel. It would have wiped out all those tanks, all the plants. We would have lost 2,000 people and would still be trying to recover, if it had hit as forecast. This would have been a $100 billion hurricane,” he said, adding that “West Galveston Island would have looked like Bolivar. We would have been totally devastated.”
Merrell first began to explore ideas for protecting the coast shortly after Ike, coming up with the Ike Dike concept of building a gate across the mouth of Galveston Bay that would only close as a hurricane approached. Added protection would come from a six-mile-long storm surge protection barrier advocated by the Bay Area Coastal Protection Alliance, which is working to make it happen.
The federal government spent $16 billion to protect New Orleans and they have only about one-sixth of the population of the Bay Area Houston area, he pointed out. Merrell hopes we will be so lucky in getting federal funds.
Merrill was accompanied by Col. Len Waterworth, former Port of Houston chairman who is now executive maritime professor at Texas A&M-Galveston. BayTran Chairman Jon Branson, who is also the Pearland city manager, welcomed the crowd.