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Texas Congressman Working on Bill to Speed Hurricane Protection Plan

Two days after U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed legislation seeking to expedite a hurricane protection plan for Texas, U.S. Rep. Randy Weber said he expects to introduce a companion bill in the U.S. House in the coming weeks.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
The beginning of the seawall on the western edge of Galveston, Feb 14, 2016.

Two days after U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed legislation seeking to expedite a hurricane protection plan for Texas, U.S. Rep. Randy Weber said he expects to introduce a companion bill in the U.S. House in the coming weeks. 

The two Republicans hope their efforts will speed up the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' long process of studying, approving and building a hurricane protection system for the Texas coast. (The Army Corps has estimated that under a normal timeline, construction on such a system could not start until 2024 at the earliest.)

"We're heightening awareness, we're trying to get this ratcheted up as quickly as we can, so that when appropriations do come into play, we can say, 'OK, here's the project we've been talking about, here's why it's important, and we're just one step closer to getting funding for it,'" Weber said Friday in a phone interview. 

The proposals will need the promise of more funding to advance, however. The Corps says it needs $20 million to complete its five-year study of hurricane protection for the Texas coast, and while the Texas General Land Office has already provided $10 million, the Corps will have to ask Congress every year for a portion of the remainder. Once the Corps recommends what to build, Congress will then have to agree to pay for the actual project, which is sure to cost billions of dollars. 

Neither of those issues is directly addressed in Weber and Cornyn's proposals. They say the legislation would expedite the Corps' study by requiring it to take local studies into account. But the agency is already planning to do that. And while the lawmakers also propose eliminating the need for Congress to authorize a final project, funding the project itself would still be the major hurdle.  

Weber, who is from the Houston suburb of Friendswood, said he knew he would eventually have to ask his colleagues to agree to spend "2, 3, 4, 8 billion dollars, maybe, on the low end" to build a coastal barrier for Texas. The bill is the first step to getting there, he said.

In March, the Tribune and ProPublica published an extensive look at what Houston’s perfect storm would look like (a companion story ran on the Reveal radio show and podcast.) Scientists, public officials and politicians say such a storm could kill thousands and cripple the national economy.

Weber said he hopes to get his bill passed in the next two months and then start approaching his colleagues about funding the project itself. He's optimistic he will find plenty of co-sponsors for his bill, noting that 32 of the Texans in the U.S. House signed a letter last November urging the Army Corps to speed up its study.  

U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Democrat whose district includes the Houston Ship Channel, said he would be happy to co-sponsor such legislation. He added that he was sure other members of Congress from the region would support it, too.

The Tribune repeatedly requested interviews over a period of several months from all 36 Texans in the U.S. House and both U.S. senators from Texas. Only five members of Congress agreed to speak on the record about hurricane protection for the state's coast. 

Some said they were hesitant to weigh in before a final hurricane protection plan has been agreed upon by scientists and local officials. But after years of debate, most have now come to an agreement on what the centerpiece of that plan should look like. The project, a massive floodgate and barrier system that would prevent storm surge from entering Galveston Bay, is known as the "Ike Dike" or "coastal spine."

Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country. It's home to the nation's largest refining and petrochemical complex, where billions of gallons of oil and dangerous chemicals are stored. And it's a sitting duck for the next big hurricane.

See how the next big hurricane could devastate the Houston region.

It's nearly impossible to build such an ambitious U.S. public works project in anticipation of a natural catastrophe. It took the Great Storm of 1900, which killed thousands of people in Galveston, to get a seawall constructed on the island; New Orleans' failing levee system was not fixed until after Hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 people in 2005; and only after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York did Congress allocate a significant amount of money to pay for storm protection studies. 

Weber is well aware of that history and knows it will be difficult to build the coastal spine before Houston's next hurricane hits. Still, he said, it's important to raise awareness about the issue in Congress. 

"In case a catastrophe does occur" in the next hurricane season, Weber said, "We can say, 'Look, this is exactly what we were talking about. Help us.'"  

Kiah Collier contributed reporting. 

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