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Houston Hurricane Protection Plan Still in Limbo

Researchers and scientists are at odds about how to protect the Houston Ship Channel, and Texas legislators will try again to reach a consensus in 2017.

An aerial photograph of the Stolthaven Oil Tanking facility along the Houston Ship Channel on Nov. 10, 2015. Shell's Deer Park facility can be seen in the upper right.

After vowing six months ago to reach a consensus on a plan to protect the Houston Ship Channel's oil refineries and chemical plants from a direct-hit hurricane, the region's scientists said Wednesday they aren't there yet — and won't be until next year at the earliest.

Researchers from Rice University in Houston and Texas A&M University at Galveston agree on the importance of some type of coastal barrier system to protect Houston and the surrounding region from hurricane-related storm surges. But Wednesday's meeting of the Legislature's Joint Interim Committee to Study a Coastal Barrier revealed little progress toward a plan. A&M Galveston advocates an $8 billion concept called the “coastal spine." Rice wants to develop a proposed "mid-bay" system, in conjunction with the spine.

"We've got to come together," said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the committee’s co-chairman, at Wednesday's hearing. "We're our biggest detriment to getting this done. We need to have a plan." 

Lawmakers formed the committee, which has only met three times, after Hurricane Ike in 2008 as a response to various competing storm protection proposals. Although Ike was one of the costliest storms in U.S. history, scientists considered it a near-miss. Had the storm landed just 30 miles southwest, it would've inundated Galveston Island and sent a storm surge into Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel, a 52-mile waterway that is home to oil refineries and industrial plants that produce much of the nation's gasoline, petroleum products and chemicals.

For years, there have been two competing proposals for protecting the region from a direct-hit storm. A&M-Galveston's "spine" pitch — an idea credited to oceanographer Bill Merrell — is a more expansive version of the "Ike Dike," a plan calling for massive floodgates at the entrance to Galveston Bay that would block storm surges.

Rice has endorsed a "mid-bay" system, which would place a floodgate closer to Houston's industrial complex.

At Wednesday's hearing, Larry Dunbar, project manager at Rice’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED) said he believes the best course is to implement both the spine and the mid-bay system. That would create multiple lines of defense, he said, because the spine alone wouldn't provide full protection. 

"It makes sense from an engineering standpoint to have a coastal barrier in place first, and a mid-bay system as a second line of defense," Dunbar said. "Ideally they'd both be built, but it all comes down to funding."

Cost, of course, is the big question, with each project requiring anywhere from an estimated $8 billion to $10 billion for implementation. One way to supplement the costs would be to work with members of Congress to get funding, a move that would avoid a lengthy process to get funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush has previously said that hurricane protection will be his top priority for the 2017 legislative session. On Wednesday, Taylor said the project should be federally funded, given that it's both a national security and an economic issue. However, funding cannot be requested until a project is approved and a consensus is reached — and Wednesday's was the committee's final meeting of the year. If its work is extended another year, as it has been in the past, the committee will go back to work on protecting the Texas coast in 2017.

Check out our Hell and High Water project, on the Houston Ship Channel's vulnerability to a major storm: 

  • Several experts worry that the low-lying residential areas in the Houston region are now more vulnerable to storms. Read more in our "Hell and High Water" project, done in collaboration with ProPublica.
  • What could happen if a major storm hit the Houston region in just the right spot? This episode of Reveal looks at that worst-case scenario.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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