After nearly a decade of bickering and finger pointing, Texas scientists and lawmakers finally seem to agree that building some version of a “coastal spine” — a massive seawall and floodgate system — would best help protect the Houston region from a devastating hurricane.
But with a price tag sure to reach into the billions, the spine will almost certainly require a massive infusion of federal money, state officials agree. Whether Texas' congressional delegation has the political backbone to deliver the cash remains to be seen.
While state officials say the project enjoys the full support of Texans in Congress, almost every member has been silent on the issue, including those who hold the most sway.
“Everything depends on how long it takes us to get Congress,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, a local economic development organization. “We could have a hurricane in three months.”
In March, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica published an extensive look at what Houston’s perfect storm would look like. Scientists, experts, and public officials say that such a hurricane would kill thousands and cripple the national economy.
Building some sort of coastal barrier system around Galveston and Houston would rank as one of the nation's most ambitious public works projects and would be unlikely to succeed without champions in Washington. State leaders and Houston-area congressmen cited U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Kevin Brady of Houston as those most likely to fill the role of standard bearer.
Cornyn and Brady, both Republicans, declined repeated interview requests about the coastal project over a period of months. The state's junior senator, Ted Cruz, is busy running for president, and his staff has said he is waiting results of further studies. Of the 36 members representing Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives, only five agreed to interviews on the subject.
At the state level, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who has made coastal protection one of his top priorities, said he hopes for support from Brady, who chairs one of the most powerful committees in the U.S. House. He also mentioned Cornyn.
Congressman Randy Weber, a Republican from Friendswood, said he is already pushing the issue, but added that a senator’s support will be critical.
“John Cornyn, of course, a senior senator, majority whip over on the Senate side, would be a great one to champion the cause,” he said.
A recent Houston Chronicle editorial also called for action from Cornyn and dubbed the proposed hurricane protection plan “Cornyn’s wall.”
“I will continue to partner with local and state officials as we work towards a consensus solution to better protect the region from future natural disasters,” Cornyn said in a statement.
His office also released a photo of him this week meeting with former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who heads a group that will recommend a final hurricane protection plan for the Houston area in June.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also just started studying the issue, and Cornyn’s office emphasized that he signed a letter last October in support of that effort. But the study will take at least five years.
In another letter sent last November, 32 members of the House delegation urged the Army Corps to speed up the process even though it is at the mercy of funding from Congress.
Meanwhile, the next hurricane season is just two months away.
“Don’t just write a letter and think that you’re done with it,” said Michel Bechtel, the mayor of Morgan’s Point, an industrial town on the Houston Ship Channel that was nearly wiped out during Hurricane Ike in 2008. “Let’s get some dollars flowing down here and let’s build it.”
Republican Congressman Pete Olson said the Corps is taking too long and should have started its efforts earlier. But for years it didn’t have the money to study hurricane protection for the Houston region. The agency was able to start last fall only because the Texas General Land Office agreed to pay for half the $20 million study at the insistence of Bush.
Congress is supposed to provide the rest, but the Army Corps will have to ask for it every year until the study is complete.
Asked if he thinks Congress will commit to the $10 million, Olson said the Corps had never given him that dollar figure. “They told you that, but not me that,” he said.
Meanwhile, not everyone in Congress seems to agree that the “coastal spine” is the best approach to protect Houston. In 2009, Texas A&M oceanographer Bill Merrell proposed the concept, which calls for extending Galveston's 17-foot seawall and installing massive floodgates between the island and Bolivar Peninsula.
Congressman Gene Green, a Democrat from Houston, said he still likes a concept called the “Centennial Gate,” which called for a gate at the mouth of the Port of Houston. But that was ruled out years ago because coastal communities feared it would protect industry at their expense.
“I don’t have an opinion on which plan is the best plan,” said Congressman Ted Poe. The Republican from Humble said crafting and implementing a plan is “not the role of the members of Congress.”
“Texas officials and stakeholders, the people that are affected by the hurricane — they need to come up with a plan,” he said. “Nothing is going to happen until there’s a plan.”
State Sen. Larry Taylor, a Republican from Friendswood who has long been an advocate of building a hurricane barrier, agreed with Poe and said it’s premature to blame Congress.
“Until we give them a plan, we can’t expect Congress to step up,” Taylor said at a hearing last week in Galveston, noting that scientists argued for years over what should be built to protect the region.
At the same hearing, though, Taylor wondered aloud if the delegation might be able to help the state avoid the five-year Corps study and go straight to Congress for planning and construction funding.
“There is a way around this very long and lengthy process, and it’s called a direct appropriation from Congress,” he said.
That will be a tough sell. Republicans in Congress have banned earmarks, or federal money for local projects. And Congress has never spent a significant amount of money to build or repair hurricane protection infrastructure until after a devastating storm has hit. It took Hurricane Katrina for Congress to give New Orleans billions of dollars to repair its failed levee system.
Local leaders in Texas say that’s the wrong way to look at it. A coastal spine in Texas isn’t an earmark because it protects the entire country’s economy, not just the Houston region, they say. And they add that a direct appropriation from Congress for storm protection in Texas is long overdue; Texas never got any such money after Hurricane Ike in 2008.
“We had a storm eight years ago, and we’re still looking for federal funding,” Bechtel said. “We don’t want to wait until we get another storm that comes in and does $200 billion in damage and kills a bunch of people.”
Bechtel was in Washington, D.C. last week to advocate for the cause in meetings with Congress. Bush will be heading to D.C. for the same reason in June.
Mitchell said he is more optimistic that he’s ever been that a storm barrier will be built, especially after state lawmakers pledged to help fund the effort at last week’s Galveston hearing.
“It took us five years to get the state’s attention on the importance of this,” he said. “Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another five years to get the congressional delegation to understand the importance of this.”
Weber said he thinks the federal government should help pay for a hurricane protection barrier, but he wouldn't comment on whether his colleagues in Congress agree with him.
"I don’t know, well, maybe," he said.
Disclosure: The General Land Office was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2011. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.