HOUSTON — Five years after Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast, causing more than $30 billion in damage and killing at least 37 Texans, cities across the region have trumpeted their rebuilding efforts.
But the tune was very different at Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center this week, where experts gathered to discuss the area’s vulnerability to future storms. It hasn’t improved, they said, and may have even worsened in the last few years — partly the result of explosive growth in the Houston Ship Channel that experts fear is occurring without appropriate hurricane safeguards.
During Hurricane Ike, more than 100,000 homes and businesses flooded, most of them on or near Galveston Island — a barrier of sorts for Houston, which experienced much less damage from the storm. But had Ike followed a slightly different path, Houston would’ve faced a different fate, said Clint Dawson, an engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
For communities on the coast, the biggest threat from large storms is the surge, the change in water level that can happen alarmingly quickly, and long before the storm makes landfall. That was the case with Ike, where, as Dawson recalled, “there was water in the streets, but no one knew a hurricane was approaching.”
The dramatic growth of industry in the Houston Ship Channel, an economic engine for the state whose exports have exceeded even those of New York City, is one of the biggest causes for concern. Some researchers worry that a direct-hit hurricane would wreak havoc on the channel’s chemical and oil storage tanks, leading to spills and an environmental catastrophe.
Hanadi Rifai, an engineering professor at the University of Houston, said that more than half a million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of Ike. With a slightly different storm trajectory, her calculations suggest, that number would have been far higher — and the total $30 billion hurricane tab would have more than doubled.
A spirited debate has emerged over two possible solutions to protect the Ship Channel from a storm surge. The SSPEED center is proposing a retractable gate across the channel’s entrance known as the “Centennial Gate.” The proposed gate, a submersible, 600-foot-long, 80-foot-tall barge that rests on the bottom of the channel, would cost an estimated $1.5 billion.
A competing idea is the “Ike Dike,” the work of scientists at Texas A&M University at Galveston. It would extend Galveston’s current seawall westward along the entire island’s coast and eastward along the Bolivar Peninsula — which proponents say would provide much wider protection to Houston in the process.
Researchers at Rice say the estimated cost of the Ike Dike — $4 billion to $6 billion — is too high. But the architect of the proposal, A&M-Galveston professor of marine sciences Bill Merrell, said it is a better option and that the federal government should help foot the bill, as it has pledged to do in New York following Superstorm Sandy.
“We deserve protection,” Merrell said. “I don’t see why [storm protection] isn’t in the same federal interest for Houston-Galveston.”
Researchers are also looking at the need for “nonstructural” protection, such as parkland or wetlands along the coast that act as natural buffers against storms. Such projects could provide economic benefits by adding recreational areas to the upper Texas coast, they say.
But even studying such options is expensive. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is tasked with determining the feasibility of the ideas, which need the agency’s stamp of approval if they are to be funded with any federal dollars. “The way Washington is operating right now, money is hard to come by,” said Sharon Tirpak, a Corps project manager. The agency only has $3 million for the study, which it is supposed to complete in three years — a deadline she suggested will be hard to meet.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker said communicating the importance of projects like the Ike Dike or the Centennial Gate will be key. “Every day, people come into this region who haven’t experienced a storm,” she said — yet they will be asked to pay, in part, for future solutions.
But the cost of doing nothing has already been demonstrated on the Texas Gulf Coast. When a massive hurricane wiped out thousands of people on Galveston Island more than a century ago, it shifted the balance of power from that coastal city to Houston.
“We saw what happened to Galveston at the turn of the century,” said Janiece Longoria, chairwoman of Houston’s Port Commission. “We can’t afford to gamble with the future in Houston.”