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Surge Protectors

Two years after Hurricane Ike’s surge crossed Galveston like a speed bump on its way to Houston, planners and academics are staring down multibillion-dollar public policy dilemmas. To describe Ike as a “wake-up call” understates and trivializes the matter. Like other coastal areas around the nation and around the world, the Houston-Galveston region is only now grappling with complex and costly questions of how to protect sprawling seaside development from the combination of subsidence and an expected sea-level rise from global warming.

U.S. Air Force member conducted search and rescue operations on Galveston Island after Hurricane Ike on Sept. 13, 2008.

In a still-desolate corner of Galveston, the music blares at St. Vincent’s House, which is painted bright yellow, with colorful murals on the walls — in stark contrast to the rotting shells of former homes still standing among the slabs. In his office, "executive servant" Michael Jackson fancies the place an oasis.

Jackson has a shrine to Hurricane Ike consisting of a twisted bit piece of a door that flew off its hinges with the deadbolt still in locked position, some scraps of metal and a flattened baseball on which he’s written “Ike Changed Me.”

“An oasis of hope, expecting miracles,” he says, repeating the motto of the five-decades-old nonprofit social service agency, which offers free pre-school, tutoring and medical services in an economically depressed neighborhood on the north side of the island. While those were merely words before the storm, now, he says, “we’re in an urban desert.”

While most in Galveston have committed to the recovery slog — a grinding, bureaucratic sojourn to secure aid and insurance, to cover rising costs with often reduced income — Jackson doesn’t try to convince friends to return, especially those without means. “You can be poor better someplace else,” he says. He sticks around because, he says, “it’s my mission. It’s what I do. Somebody had to stay.”

The dilemmas that Galvestonians face two years after Ike’s surge crossed the island like a speed bump on its way to Houston speak to much larger, multibillion-dollar public policy dilemmas facing the entire region. To describe Ike as a “wake-up call” both understates and trivializes the matter. Like other coastal areas around the nation and, indeed, the world, the Houston-Galveston region is only now beginning to face complex and costly questions of how to protect sprawling seaside development from the combination of subsidence — the natural sinking of soft marsh soils — and an expected sea-level rise from global warming. The questions arise inconveniently at a time when an increasingly broke federal government labors to finance competing priorities in a distressed economy, not to mention the $14 billion already committed to flood control projects in New Orleans (a massive figure many nonetheless view as inadequate to the task, in either Louisiana or Texas).

In the Houston region, more than a million people live in the evacuation zones surrounding the city — and about 500,000 more are expected to move there in the next 30 years unless communities move to control growth, according a recent report from the newly formed SSPEED Center (Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters) headquartered at Rice University.

The debate teeters between massive flood control projects — like the one informally known as the “Ike Dike,” a term coined by a Galveston professor — to a whole host of “nonstructural” solutions that involve, for instance, rebuilding wetlands and limiting development in the coastal zone. Advocates of each tack concede that the region will probably need both to provide effective protection, and yet the strategies can clash in ways difficult to reconcile. Building dikes, levees or floodwalls can, for instance, have the side effect of encouraging more development on the coast by creating a potentially false sense of security. Moreover, such hard structures can impede the natural processes that build and sustain wetlands by interrupting marsh water flows.

Even two years after the most destructive storm to hit the region since the 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston, such efforts remain in their infancy — far from concrete action, much less financing. In two crucial exploratory efforts, the SSPEED Center has brought together academics from a number of Texas universities to study flood protection trade-offs, and the six counties in the surge zone — Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, Chambers, Jefferson and Orange — have formed the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, informally called the Surge District. The district, officials hope, will provide the arena with tough regional decisions about how to use sparse funds to protect everything from St. Vincent’s House on the island to the massive petrochemical complex surrounding the Houston Ship Channel.

Those two efforts proceed with the sobering realization that Ike, as much damage as it wrought, actually constituted a miss. “There’s no question that Ike, had it hit 20 or 30 miles to the west, would have been a dramatically different event,” says former Kemah mayor Bill King, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to serve on a commission that studied Ike’s lessons. “You would have seen thousands of casualties.”

No retreat

Experts contemplating how to protect South Texas from the Big One concede that the history of rapid development there — and its potential future — make the task exceedingly difficult, maybe impossible. Too many people and too much heavy industry, often presenting environmental hazards, are packed into vulnerable coastal zones. Some of the industrial development was perhaps unavoidable; you can’t exactly build one of the nation’s largest ports and a national hub for the offshore oil industry in the mountains, after all. Whatever the effect of past decisions and the region’s historically laissez faire approach to planning and zoning, experts agree that the path forward lies in protecting the untold billions in infrastructure already in place rather than abandoning it.

“There’s the idea out there that we can strategically retreat from the coast — which is nonsense,” King says. “You can keep it from getting worse. If you’re in a hole, stop digging, and if you’re in a swamp, stop building things in the swamp. … But that’s no solution to the stuff already built. Land use [planning] can’t save Johnson Space Center if a 30-foot surge hits Galveston Bay.”

And what if it did? In the first installment of an ongoing study, the SSPEED Center tried to quantify the effects. The scenarios are, to say the least, troubling. Even Ike — a category 2 storm that missed — wrought $30 billion in damage. If Ike had hit dead-on, pushing the surge directly up the Houston Ship Channel, it could have caused $100 billion in damage, the study concludes, along with environmental disasters involving the massive storehouses of petroleum and chemicals stationed along the coast. The current elevation for much of the infrastructure in the Houston Ship Channel is about 15 feet; a large storm could send 20 to 25 feet of surge into the waterway, the study predicts. That doesn’t even get into the scenario of a direct hit from a stronger storm, on the order of Katrina (which, by the way, also missed New Orleans, hitting directly on the Mississippi coast). Moreover, the region’s highway system already strains to handle the million people who might need to evacuate, not accounting for expected growth.

Before Ike rolled ashore and splintered much of Galveston’s housing stock, such scenarios had been “completely off the radar,” says Bill Merrill, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M Galveston. Merrill’s radar tuned in vividly while he rode out Ike on the second floor of his historic building on The Strand in Galveston, watching 8 feet of surge hollow out the first floor. He’s been advocating ever since for the Ike Dike — a proposed 17-foot-high wall stretching 60 miles, with a two-mile floodgate between Galveston Island and the Ike-flattened Bolivar Peninsula.

“There are areas of the coast we shouldn’t settle on. But we have — and we’re not going anywhere,” he says. “We’re just a shooting gallery. They are going to keep hitting us. The two options are to retreat or to build structural solutions.” 

Survival math

Merrill and other advocates for Houston-Galveston flood protection point to simple math: The Ike Dike and other remedies, structural and nonstructural, will cost billions — but ultimately far fewer billions than will be spent cleaning up after future devastating storms, to say nothing of the potential loss of life. Merrill ballparks the cost of his proposed dike at about $3 billion, compared to $30 billion in damage from Ike. (He concedes it's just a guess and could be low.) Meanwhile, the first order of business by the surge district will be to secure the relative pittance of $3 million for a serious study of options.

No one disagrees that the investment in flood protection makes economic sense, but that doesn’t mean local governments have the money. Investments on such a scale usually require the might of the federal government, which already has put $14 billion into flood protection for New Orleans. “If you think about it, the Houston ship channel and this general area is a lot more strategic nationally: 40 percent of the nation’s jet fuel and a large percentage of the gasoline is refined here,” Merrill argues. “But we’re going to spend nothing here and $14 billion there? I know there’s national guilt. But if it’s wise to protect New Orleans, it’s wise to protect Houston.”

New Orleans flood protection indeed has benefited from guilt — the federal government has admitted severe failings in the design of Corps of Engineers levees that failed there in the first place. The city’s bid for federal intervention also benefits from the unique place its culture occupies in the American psyche. Houston and any number of coastal areas will have trouble attracting the same federal support in an era of severely stressed national budgets, says Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney, Rice University instructor and co-author of the SSPEED study. “I have to think that’s anomalous,” he says. “It’s going to be extremely difficult for other coastal areas to duplicate the spending on structural projects there.”

Which makes creative “nonstructural” solutions — as in, something other than massive levees and floodwalls — all the more important, Blackburn argues. Among the ideas currently being floated: setting aside remaining undeveloped land, especially wetlands, to act as storm surge barrier; buying out residents of the most vulnerable areas; and creating disincentives to buy and build in the surge zone. That might include limiting flood insurance or raising its cost, along with strengthening requirements to build stronger and higher. One idea gaining traction would designate certain areas — such as the Bolivar Peninsula, where housing by and large has not returned — as recreation areas. “They are some of the finest recreation areas that nobody knows about, for fishing, kayaking, crabbing and the like,” Blackburn says of low-lying coastal wetlands. “We can begin to think about a national park structure that can set aside these lands to absorb flood waters.”

Blackburn suggests something as simple as a mandated disclosure in the transfer of properties in the flood zone: a frank warning to potential buyers about the danger. But even that idea would meet strong resistance from realtors and others in coastal communities who are conflicted, balancing protection needs with rebuilding and sustaining their economies, Blackburn says.

Every solution has its trade-offs. Blackburn recalls talking to a Louisiana parish official about the need to require coastal homeowners to build high off the ground: “He told me, ‘Son, have you ever tried to sell a house that’s 20 feet off the ground?’”

Down in Galveston

As it continues its struggle to rebuild, Galveston’s post-Ike experience provides a grim glimpse of the potential damage and rebuilding costs to the wider coastal area if an even bigger storm surge rolls into South Texas. The city’s mayor, Joe Jaworski, estimates Galvestion has lost more than 10,000 people from its pre-flood population of about 58,000; locals concede many may never return. Property values have dropped about 10 percent. Jaworski expects that the $500 million in federal Community Development Block Grants that will ultimately wind through a frustrating bureaucracy will pay for just a portion of the rebuilding. About 600,000 cubic yards of debris have been cleared, says Maggie Immler, relief coordinator for Texas Episcopal Disaster Relief and Development — enough to build a stack 700 feet high on a football field.

The storm hobbled some of the island's biggest economic drivers. The University of Texas Medical Branch, for instance, suffered more than $700 million in damage via lost revenue. While it managed to remain open, it reduced its staff by roughly a quarter in the wake of the storm and has been rebuilding ever since.

A hardy lot remains committed to Galveston, but many still need serious help, Immler says. “They’re not going anywhere. They’re going to live in the gutted house with no power and no running water, whether or not we help them,” she says. “They’ve owned their home for 50 years and they don’t know anything else.

Jaworski strikes the upbeat pose you’d expect from any newly elected leader of a rebuilding community. “They talk about the ‘hundred-year storm,’ and it always seems to work out that way,” he says. “If you look at the 20th century, there’s a big storm every 25 years or so, but then a 100-year life altering storm every hundred years or so. I’m going to go ahead and go with the meteorologists and the statisticians and say we’ve had our hundred-year storm, thank you very much.” Then he corrects himself: “All kidding aside, it’s something that could happen any year.”

Jackson, presiding over the urban desert, has moved away from using the term “changed” in describing his neighborhood. “It has been transformed,” he says, and not for the better. “It’s not a thriving neighborhood: vacant lots, boarded-up buildings, a lot of people on the streets. It will follow the pattern of New Orleans: It will be smaller, and many people that were here will not be here.”

The basement of St. Vincent’s used to house a preschool, which has moved up the street and serves 68 children, compared with 102 before Ike. Now, the basement has only a kitchen and couches, with everything built on wheels so it can be rolled away in preparation for another storm. “It’s not if, it’s when,” Jackson says, in a line fast becoming a cliché along the Gulf Coast.

As for Jackson’s own home? Destroyed. He moved a half an hour up the road to Dickinson.

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