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Coastal Barrier Plan ‘Ike Dike’ Draws Support, Needs Funding

Posted on October 20, 2016

By Harvey Rice, Chron

If there is a lesson from the devastation of Hurricane Ike eight years ago, it is that the Houston-Galveston region is extremely vulnerable to a catastrophic storm surge, and the next hurricane could send the regional economy into a deep tailspin.

But plans to protect the region from such a storm surge have lagged as officials and experts argued about whether to build a major coastal barrier called the “Ike Dike” or a series of smaller projects that could be completed more quickly.

Now, there is strong support for building the $11.6 billion Ike Dike plan, designed to keep a massive storm surge from rushing into developed areas. A six-county storm surge district recently recommended a plan that calls for 277 miles of coastal barriers, including raised seawalls, levees and surge gates.

Hurricane Matthew provided a grim reminder of the devastating impact of tropical storms, spawning massive flooding in North Carolina and contributing to at least 30 deaths in the United States. Houston’s massive role in world energy production and its exposure to storms that are increasing in intensity make it one of the most at-risk spots for a major hurricane.

“Nothing has been done since Hurricane Ike to fix this problem,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.

Whether the Ike Dike ever becomes a reality, though, depends on persuading Congress to pay for all, or most, of it. The current plan calls for the coastal barrier to be completed by 2035, a date that state legislators would like to see shortened with help from Congress.

“When (Hurricane) Katrina hit New Orleans, Congress funded it,” Mitchell said. “That is a community whose gross domestic product is one-sixteenth of the Houston-Galveston area.

More Information


Sept. 13, 2008: Hurricane Ike makes landfall at Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula. Texas A&M University Galveston professor Bill Merrell conceives of “Ike Dike” as he watches storm surge.

2010: Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District forms to study storm surge protection

2011: Rice University’s SSPEED Center recommends quick, cheap storm-surge protection measures without an Ike Dike

2012: Texas A&M University Galveston President Robert Smith III travels to The Netherlands to show support for Ike Dike

2013: Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District finally receives $4 million to do study

2014: Joint Interim Committee to Study a Coastal Barrier meets in Galveston

2015: Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District publishes Phase 1 of three-phase study.

January 2016: Army Corps of Engineers begins five-year coastal protection study

February: Phase 2 published

June: Phase 3 published

“Back here in Texas,” he added, “We received no federal funding.”

Planners have completed studies showing that the Ike Dike could prevent $38 billion in losses and save 151,000 jobs over a 50-year lifespan.

Seawall may be raised

Unlike earlier proposals, the plan now backed by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, also known as the storm surge district, recommends raising the Galveston seawall by 4 feet, building a levee on the bay side of Galveston and a gate at Clear Lake. A proposed gate at San Luis Pass on the west end of Galveston Island was eliminated.

Differences remain over how to block a storm surge inside Galveston Bay and how close to the beach to build the surge barrier. Some also worry about the environmental effect of a proposed surge gate between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

Larry Dunbar, project manager for Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center, told legislators that it was better to move ahead with smaller projects, such as the center’s proposal for a gate inside Galveston Bay, that could be financed locally.

“Are we going to sit back and wait for the federal government to give us the $10 billion we need?” Dunbar asked. “We believe … it can be built in pieces if necessary.”

The push for action comes eight years after Hurricane Ike pounded Texas’ Gulf Coast in September 2008, leaving three dozen people dead and up to $30 billion in direct damage, mostly in Galveston and southeastern Harris counties. Galveston’s 17-foot seawall, built and raised after the catastrophic 1900 hurricane, did not protect the island from surge on the Galveston Bay side.

Although Ike was the third-costliest storm in U.S. history, news of the disaster was eclipsed by the national financial collapse days later. Congress appropriated about $3 billion for disaster relief, but nothing for coastal protection.

“We’ve got to come together and get one plan and start selling it,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood and co-chairman of the Joint Interim Committee to Study a Coastal Barrier, at a recent hearing. “We haven’t directed Congress to do anything because we don’t have a plan.”

Taylor and others testifying at a joint committee hearing this month said that Congress should do for Texas what it did for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and for Greater New York after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Strong support

The Ike Dike system, devised by Texas A&M Galveston marine scientist Bill Merrell after the 2008 hurricane, would essentially create a barrier to keep surges from hitting Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties. Gates have been proposed to blunt the storm surge in Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel.

Strong support for the Ike Dike concept from business and a prominent environmental group was evident at the recent hearing, which followed a two-year study by the storm surge district.

As far back as 2011, there was disagreement over whether to build the Ike Dike or the series of smaller projects advocated by the SSPEED Center. The dike system prevailed and the SSPEED Center now supports the idea of a coastal barrier, but has not given up on urging smaller, locally funded projects to complement the Ike Dike.

Taylor said differences over whether to place a barrier inside the bay should be resolved after the district completes an environmental study. Once a clear proposal is ready, a state agency is needed to handle financial and construction dealings with the federal government. The joint committee will issue a report early next year that likely will result in legislation to establish such an entity, which Taylor said probably would include representatives from the General Land Office, the Texas Department of Transportation, the storm surge district and other agencies.

Funding options

There is skepticism about the willingness of Congress to pay for a coastal barrier.

Christopher Toomey, vice president at AECOM engineering, told the joint committee that Congress was unlikely to fund the Ike Dike unless Texas paid some of the cost.

“Securing congressional funding is becoming more and more challenging,” Toomey said. “Our concern is that broad (congressional) support will only materialize after a disaster.”

Toomey offered several ways to obtain local funding, including the Legislature’s projected $10.4 billion rainy-day fund for fiscal 2017.

State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, shot back: “I don’t know that a direct hit on Houston would shake any rainy-day money loose from the Legislature.”

Taylor said it was worth trying to get 100 percent federal funding. “We should give it a shot, then come back,” he said.

The office of U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, said that House rules limiting earmarks, or legislation for specific projects, would make it difficult to get funding passed.

Courtney Weaver, a spokeswoman for Weber, said the earmark rules could be changed when the new Congress is sworn in next year.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn referred to an opinion piece by the senator published in the Houston Chronicle saying that support of the entire region was needed.

One thing is assured: More study.

In addition to the storm surge district’s report, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a study of storm-surge protection needs for the entire Texas Gulf Coast. Congress needs a recommendation from the Corps before it can appropriate money for the project.

Sheri Willey, the Corps’ project manager for the upper Texas Coast section, said Congress is funding the study in annual appropriations rather than giving it a lump sum, as was the case with New Orleans.

Leonard Waterworth, a former head of the Corps’ Galveston District who now teaches at Texas A&M Galveston, said the planning process could be shortened if Congress provided money up-front, as it did for the New Orleans project. “The Corps can build this but they need to be given the money … and they will execute,” Waterworth told legislators.

The Corps is scheduled to make a recommendation in 2018, Willey said. There is no guarantee that it will recommend a coastal barrier system like the Ike Dike. Willey said the Corps would base its recommendation solely on the science, although it has a close working relationship with the storm surge district.

Environmental study

The district has been sharing information with the Corps, and Chris Sallese, the storm surge district’s program manager, is a former head of the Corps’ Galveston district.

“I believe the Corps of Engineers will recommend the coastal spine,” Waterworth said.

An environmental study that the storm surge district is conducting will answer questions about the environmental impact of a proposed gate between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

Scott Jones of the Galveston Bay Foundation told legislators that the gates would increase the velocity of water in and out of Galveston Bay. The storm surge district is proposing the use of lift gates that could close rapidly if a storm approached, but one other effect is that it would block some water flowing between the bay and the Gulf even when the gates are open. “We don’t yet know the impacts to commercial and recreational fisheries,” Jones said.

Source: Chron

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