Will we have surge protection when the next big storm hits?

housefloodBy Mary Alys Cherry

June will soon be here – that time of the year when we begin wondering what hurricane season will bring to the Bay Area.

A quiet summer of fun and frivolity or another Ike storming through our communities, ripping some homes apart and flooding others?

“You just never know what the season will bring. Soon, somewhere between the Texas coast and the west coast of Africa a monster will stir to life. It will begin its march and we will wonder if it’s coming here. We pay close attention as it moves nearer and nearer. As the chances for our area rise, apprehension turns to dread and dread to fear,” Dr. William Merrill sums up our plight.

The George P. Mitchell chairman of the Department of Marine Sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston has spent the past six years working to get a coastal storm surge protection barrier for the Houston-Galveston Bay area.

So have Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership President Bob Mitchell and his staff, who have spent many, many hours working with our congressmen and beating the bushes for dollars to get the project off dead center.

“What if a Cat 4 or 5 came our way?” Houston City Councilman Dave Martin asked as he spoke to a Clear Lake audience recently. “We can sit and wait but we need to be proactive and look at things like the Ike Dike.”

The proposed storm surge barrier concept, which got the nickname, the Ike Dike, would stretch from the western end of Galveston Island to the eastern end of Bolivar Peninsula and would cost from $4 billion to $6 billion.

Most everyone thinks it’s a good idea. In fact, just about all the cities around the Bay Area, including Galveston and League City, have passed resolutions of support. Galveston’s Industrial Development Corp even gave $250,000 for the project.

The problem is finding the money to build the 17-foot wall along the coast’s dune line and a surge barrier across the entrance to Galveston Bay that would allow water from the Gulf of Mexico to flow naturally into the bay so the bay’s ecology would not be changed – an idea that has proved successful in The Netherlands as the Dutch worked to protect their cities from the North Sea.

A large gate in the middle of the barrier would be open for shipping but would close when a hurricane approached. The gate and the 15-mile extension of the Galveston Seawall along the Bolivar Peninsula would stop any storm surge at the coastline and Galveston, Houston, the Port of Houston, the coastal communities that front on the bay and the entire Houston Ship Channel would be protected.

Just as the proposed project was getting the nod from all the Bay Area communities for studies to see if the Ike Dike was the answer to our problems, the recession hit and the $3-4 billion needed to build the barrier suddenly became an impossibility, as did the $1 million needed to study the project.

Now, with the uptick in the economy, a Bay Area Coastal Protection Alliance has been formed and more than $1 million has been raised for the necessary studies to determine if the barrier would work, the effect on wildlife, etc. Then, if it is determined that the Ike Dike is feasible, federal financial help will be needed.

Once the studies are done, the team pushing for surge protection will head to the nation’s capital, hoping to get federal funding to build the Ike Dike.

A competing plan, the Centennial Gate, suggested by a Rice University group has a much cheaper price tag, only $1.5 billion to build a 600-800 foot gate near the Fred Hartman Bridge in Baytown. But it would only protect the Ship Channel and much of Houston’s industrial base, while leaving all the coastal communities exposed to any surge.

On average, the Galveston Bay area is hit by a hurricane every 15 years. Hurricane Ike caused some $30 billion in damages and loss of life, plus considerable damage to the environment.

However, the thinking is future hurricanes could be a great deal more destructive, that a slightly stronger storm could cause $73 billion in gross product losses, $61.3 billion in income and 863,000 jobs as the Houston-Galveston area is home to the largest and most important concentration of petroleum refining and petrochemical processing plants in the United States.
So, it is imperative that something is done, Houston Mayor Annise Parker said during her inauguration in January.

“There’re a lot of conversations,” she said, adding, “But no one seems to be stepping up and saying, ‘I’m going to convene a meeting.’ If no one else does, I’m committing that the City of Houston will. We would never be the first community to be hit, but we’re all in this together if a major hurricane strikes the greater Houston area.”

Since then meetings have been convened, and finally, we have some action. But more needs to be done or somewhere down the road, disaster lurks.

Mitchell pointed out that 10 percent of the country’s gross national product is generated in this area – 26 percent of all the gas, 46 percent of the jet fuel, 40 percent of all feedstock and much of the plastics that are so much a part of our lives.

Image all those plants sitting under 20 feet of water, Mitchell says, adding that if Ike had hit just 17 miles west of where it did, all those plants along the ship channel and at Bayport would have been under 20 feet of water.

If something is not done to protect our area, the day may come when that happens.

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