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National Public Radio interviews US Army Corps about largest USACE project in 220 years: $34+ Billion

Posted on April 24, 2023

NPR The Corps has a plan to make the Galveston seawall taller, plus build new gates and dunes and other infrastructure to protect other parts of the city from rising seas. The plan would cost at least $34 billion, although that’s likely an underestimate.

USACE “This will be the largest ever civil works project undertaken by the Corps of Engineers in its 220-year history”

Transcript :


We’re about to share a sound very few people have ever heard. It’s from Antarctica, and it’s a recording from underneath a melting glacier. That whistling sound is a seal.


DETROW: And what sounds like rumbling thunder – that’s the most important part.


DETROW: That is the sound of the ice cracking apart, one of the most elemental sounds of climate change. This melting glacier – again, in Antarctica – is threatening people who live 8,000 miles away in sunny Texas.


DETROW: Rebecca Hersher from NPR’s Climate Desk explains this unexpected connection.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: We’re far from Antarctica on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. This is Galveston, Texas, gateway to one of the busiest ports in the country, home to a cruise terminal, a university, 50,000 residents and miles of sandy beaches. Like a lot of people here, Jerry Davila comes down to the water to relax.

JERRY DAVILA: I love just staring at the water. It’s a great stress reliever just to look at it.

HERSHER: But families who have lived in Galveston for a long time also know that the water can be dangerous. It’s the No. 1 threat to this city’s existence.

JUNE COLLINS PULLIAM: So I’m June Collins Pulliam, and we are here in Galveston at our family home that’s been here for about a hundred twenty years.

HERSHER: One hundred twenty years because the house that used to be on this exact spot was destroyed, swept away by the ocean during a storm in the year 1900. We actually have firsthand accounts of what happened from oral histories. This is Pulliam’s great-aunt Annie Smizer McCullough, who was in her early 20s when the storm hit.

ANNIE SMIZER MCCULLOUGH: Oh, it was an awful thing. You want me to tell you, but it’s – no tongue can tell it.

HERSHER: This recording originally aired in an NPR radio documentary. The sound of wind and water was added by producers.

SMIZER MCCULLOUGH: The wind was so strong, and those waves was coming so – well, I don’t guess you want to hear all of that.



UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We want to hear it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We want to hear it.

SMIZER MCCULLOUGH: And the water was coming so fast, the wagon was getting so it was floating.

HERSHER: McCullough barely survived. The family’s home and most of the city were destroyed. At least 6,000 people died. It’s still the most deadly weather disaster in recorded U.S. history. But the city survived thanks in large part to a massive concrete wall that was built after the storm, a wall so tall that engineers said it would protect the city from the ocean forever. The wall is still here today. I drove out to look at it with Kelly Burks-Copes from the Army Corps of Engineers.

KELLY BURKS-COPES: So this is 17 feet high.

HERSHER: Seventeen feet high and 10 miles long. It runs basically the length of the city. It’s covered in murals. There’s a four-lane road along the top.

BURKS-COPES: We’re on the seawall. So the seawall is where the bulk of the condos are. This is where people come and stay in hotels. They walk across Seawall Boulevard, which is the road we’re driving on. They drop down off of the 17-foot seawall on stairs, not jumping (laughter). And they go out to the beach, and…

HERSHER: On a calm day, it’s difficult to imagine that water could ever come over the top of this wall. It really does look like it will protect the city forever. And maybe it would have if not for climate change. But Galveston has already experienced two feet of sea level rise. That’s some of the fastest sea level rise in the world. And that makes storm surge from hurricanes even more dangerous.


PAUL GOODLOE: We are in storm alert here at the Weather Channel as Hurricane Ike draws dangerously close to the upper Texas coast.

HERSHER: In 2008, Ike narrowly missed Galveston. If the storm had hit the city directly, scientists say it would have overwhelmed the seawall. It was a wake-up call. The wall is too small, says Kelly Burks-Copes.

BURKS-COPES: Seventeen feet tall – with sea level rise, that’s still not enough.

HERSHER: Because sea level rise in Galveston is accelerating. The most sophisticated estimates predict that in the next century, sea levels here will rise at least two additional feet and perhaps 10 feet or more. It’s a huge range, which brings us back to the melting glacier in Antarctica. Erin Pettit is the scientist who recorded the sound you heard at the beginning. When she made it, she was camped on top of one of the most dangerous glaciers in Antarctica. It’s the size of Florida, and it’s melting.

ERIN PETTIT: I put hydrophones in the water underneath our camp.

HERSHER: Underwater microphones are one of the many tools Pettit is using to figure out how quickly glaciers like this one are melting. She and her team are also measuring giant cracks in the ice.

PETTIT: They’re getting longer by, you know, sometimes a mile a year. But it’s not just a continuous, slowly incrementing thing. It sits there for a while. And then in just a week later, it’ll be a mile longer.

HERSHER: Like, everything seems OK, and then boom. A giant piece of ice falls into the ocean, unleashing more sea level rise. Pettit is trying to understand why that happens so she can predict the future, figure out how quickly this glacier will splinter and how quickly all that fresh water will be added to the ocean. And even though she works at the other end of the planet, her research has huge implications for Galveston because melting ice in West Antarctica disproportionately affects the Texas coast. Ben Hamlington studies sea level rise at NASA. He says the connection between Texas and Antarctica is kind of counterintuitive.

BEN HAMLINGTON: Because you would think the areas closest to where that ice is being lost would feel it the most. And it’s actually the further away you are, the bigger sea level rise you’re actually going to feel.

HERSHER: So being far away from Antarctica as it melts doesn’t protect cities like Galveston. It actually does the opposite. Also, scientists think that all the extra freshwater pouring into the ocean near Antarctica could disrupt a major ocean current in the Atlantic, which would cause even faster sea level rise on the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, which is why people in Galveston and in other coastal U.S. cities really need to know how quickly Antarctica’s ice will disappear so they can protect themselves.


HERSHER: That’s what the Army Corps of Engineers is hoping to do in Galveston. The Corps has a plan to make the seawall taller, plus build new gates and dunes and other infrastructure to protect other parts of the city from rising seas. The plan would cost at least $34 billion, although that’s likely an underestimate.

BURKS-COPES: This will be the largest ever civil works project undertaken by the Corps of Engineers in its 220-year history.

HERSHER: Kelly Burks-Copes says the goal is to protect Galveston for another hundred years. And even though it’s unclear how much sea levels will rise in the next century, they need to start building protections now, she says. Otherwise, the city is just a sitting duck.

BURKS-COPES: You can’t be risk-averse. You can’t be paralyzed by uncertainty. You have to actually start making decisions and buy down the risk.

HERSHER: That means designing infrastructure that’s adaptable. Unlike the seawall that was built after 1900, many of the upgraded walls and dunes can be made taller or wider if they need to be in the future. It’s a nod to what we don’t know about our changing planet and a vote for the survival of this city on an island. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.


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