May 14, 2017

Nearly 9 Years After Ike, Lawmakers Are Still Studying How to Protect Texas Coast

Reporting Texas

When Hurricane Ike slammed into Galveston Bay in the early hours of Sept. 13, 2008, the storm surge flooded an estimated 100,000 homes in Texas, injured thousands, killed at least 74 and caused nearly $30 million in damage, making Ike the third-costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

Yet most scientists consider the storm a near miss, and nine years later Galveston and Houston are as vulnerable as ever. The Houston Ship Channel is one of the nation’s busiest shipping lanes. Several major oil refineries, and dozens of chemical and industrial manufacturing plants line the waterway.

If Ike had not shifted course slightly less than 50 miles from shore, it would have sent a catastrophic storm surge through Galveston Bay and up the channel. The concern is that a future hurricane could travel a more destructive path.

In 2013, the Texas State Legislature created an “interim” House-Senate committee to find a way to protect the coast from the next big one. The panel has met three times since then and has reached consensus on an $11 billion coastal-protection proposal authored by Texas A&M University-Galveston. The problem now is finding the money.

“Everybody is pretty much in agreement,” Bill Merrell, a Texas A&M-Galveston oceanographer who worked on the proposal, said in a telephone interview. “The business community has been very supportive of protection. We don’t see anybody standing up and saying we don’t need it … because it’s better to do nothing. Everybody sings a song, but nothing happens.”

The Legislature, in its current session, is expected to approve an extension of the interim committee for another two years as the hunt for a viable protection project goes on. State Rep. Wayne Faircloth, a Galveston Republican, and Sen. Larry Taylor, a Galveston Democrat, filed identical bills to keep the committee alive. The House version, HB 2252, has passed and is now awaiting Senate consideration.

The stakes are high whatever the Legislature does, and the business community knows it.

“People need to understand everything that comes in and out of the ports adds up to $500 million a year, just in the Houston area alone, and it has a $1.2 billion effect on the entire Texas economy,” Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, a Houston nonprofit, said in a telephone interview. “Forty-six percent of all the specialty chemicals produced in the United States of America are produced right here.”

The interim committee narrowed proposals for a coastal barrier to two: one from Rice University that would protect just the ship channel, and the “Ike Dike” proposal from A&M. The $11 billion Ike Dike concept calls for massive floodgates that would protect all of Galveston Bay. With the state budget tight, supporters of the project are looking to Washington.

Philip Bedient, director at Rice’s Center for Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters, says he hopes Congress will provide funding to break ground on the Ike Dike before another storm hits the Houston-Galveston region.

“Damage from another hurricane could be anywhere from a $50 billion to $90 billion hit on the local regional economy, and that doesn’t even include the national economy, and you’re talking about a project in the range of $10 billion,” Bedient said in a telephone interview.

Bedient says the Ike Dike has found a supporter of federal funding in Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

“A lot of the research has been done, and a lot of the work has been done,” Bedient said. “It’s just a matter of finding a political champion to get on the bandwagon and lead this thing forward, and I think Commissioner Bush is up to the task.”

Bush supported Taylor’s Senate Concurrent Resolution 32, which endorses the project and asks for federal funding from Congress. It passed the Senate without debate.