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Will the $29B ‘Ike Dike’ Stop a 20-Foot Storm Surge?

After Hurricane Ike hit in 2008, pushing a 17-foot storm surge over Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, causing $30 billion of damage and killing 43 people, there was a collective epiphany.

Woman surveys hurricane damage of her home.
Galveston, Texas, resident surveys her badly damaged apartment after Hurricane Ike in 2008.
(AP/Rick Bowmer)
(TNS) - Doomsday, we’re told, will go something like this: A 20-foot storm surge propelled by 150 mph winds from a cyclonic beast spawned in the balmy Gulf of Mexico is on a collision course with the Houston Ship Channel. The wave tosses debris, vehicles, shipping containers into refineries and chemical plants, unleashing pyrotechnic clouds of toxicity unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Mass evacuations ensue. Hundreds, if not thousands are left dead or severely injured. Galveston Bay, an ecological jewel vital to the local economy, becomes so polluted it’s rendered unusable for a generation. The Port of Houston, one of the busiest in the nation, is crippled, stalling the global supply chain.

If you’ve lived in the Houston-Galveston region through even one hurricane season you’re likely familiar with this scenario.

After Hurricane Ike hit in 2008, pushing a 17-foot storm surge over Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, causing $30 billion of damage and killing 43 people, there was a collective epiphany. We could no longer rely on our prayers, weather forecasters and emergency go-bags to get us through the most volatile months of hurricane season. We needed protection from deadly storm surges as fast as possible.

Thirteen years later — the Army Corps of Engineers won’t win any awards for speed — the agency has finally unveiled full-fledged plans for the so-called Ike Dike. Named by Texas A&M oceanographer Bill Merrell who proposed the concept shortly after Ike hit, the proposal is the product of an exhaustive, seven-year study that the Corps’ chief of engineers is expected to sign off on by Oct. 12 and send to Congress.

The $29 billion plan is more expansive than Merrell’s original idea. It includes projects up and down the Texas Gulf Coast, but the bulk of the work will be south of Houston. A series of gates designed to protect against a surge of up to 22 feet would stretch from the east end of Galveston Island across the mouth of Galveston Bay to Bolivar Peninsula. Other coastal protections include 43 miles of 14- and 12-foot dunes on Galveston’s west end and on the peninsula. Gates are also planned on the western bank of Galveston Bay for Clear Lake and Dickinson Bayou.

While the dunes were a significant concession the Corps made after the public comment period — the original 2018 alignment proposed much more intrusive concrete levees spanning Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula — it has nonetheless been consistently opposed by a significant number of the coastal residents and business owners it is designed to protect. Concerns ranged from provincial — “How dare they obstruct my beachfront view!” — to environmental — “How would this project affect endangered sea turtles and crucial marine life?” For these skeptics, an elemental question underpins this project: Would this expensive, taxpayer-funded plan that would take 20 years to design and build even protect us from the Big One in that doomsday scenario that keeps us up at night whenever a tropical depression churns in the Gulf?

The answer appears to be no. The Corps uses a cost-benefit analysis, among other factors, to decide what to design. The agency argues that building the project to a height that can withstand a Category 3 storm surge is the best use of money, even as sea levels rise, returning $2 for every $1 spent and paying for itself after one storm. Kelly Burks-Copes, the Corps’ project manager, admitted to the Chronicle’s Emily Foxhall that stronger storms could over-top the sea gates and dunes.

When it comes to flood protection of this scale, though, trade-offs can be a slippery slope. What exactly are we prepared to sacrifice to erect a barrier that, for instance, wouldn’t have even blunted the impacts of Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 storm which narrowly missed us weeks ago?

Taxpayers will be footing the 20-year cost of the project’s construction — 65 percent from the federal government, 35 percent from the state — as well as its maintenance, estimated up to $100 million per year. The Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, an entity recently created by the Legislature, has the power to levy taxes and issue bonds to pay for that. Translation: don’t get too comfortable with your current property tax rate.

Most of the project’s largest components — the sea gates and dunes — have not yet been thoroughly assessed for environmental impacts. The Corps’ study process is structured in a way that the public will not have the ability to review environmental impacts before federal funds are appropriated. The Corps estimates that the sea gates will reduce the flow of water into Galveston Bay by nearly one-tenth, creating half-inch lower high tides and half-inch higher low tides. For a bay system that contributes one-third of Texas’ commercial fishing income, a full accounting of these impacts is essential.

Given the limitations of the current plan, and the questions still lingering, it’s time for our political leaders championing this project to acknowledge that the Ike Dike alone is not enough. It is surely not the panacea that many, including this editorial board, hoped it would be.

But is it worth it? We still believe so.

Now that the preliminary hurdles have been cleared, our congressional delegation must hold the Corps’ accountable for beating the 20-year construction timeline. Simply green-lighting the Ike Dike means in a best case scenario, we’re two decades away from having a major line of defense against flooding. Our congressional leaders should vote to fund the project with the understanding that we will likely need even more than the $29 billion Ike Dike to build out other defenses. And we cannot simply rely on the good faith of the petrochemical industry to protect themselves.

For state and local lawmakers, waiting for the Ike Dike provides an opportunity to take a full inventory of our flood protection needs. Thousands of storage tanks along the Houston Ship Channel have been identified as being at risk for flooding and contamination. We agree with the Galveston Bay Foundation and Bayou City Waterkeeper’s recommendation that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo appoint a task force to study which tanks are most dangerous and whether a storm surge threat can be mitigated with industry-funded defenses.

The city and county should also move forward with funding a full engineering and environmental study of the Galveston Bay Park Plan. The $4 billion to $6 billion proposal from Rice University’s SSPEED Center would create barrier islands in Galveston Bay using dredge material to help block storm surge, providing robust protection for the Ship Channel and coastal residents on the bay that would not be adequately protected by the Ike Dike alone.

Nature-based solutions, from restoring paved-over wetlands to rebuilding oyster reefs, are all a part of the Corps’ Ike Dike plan, but wouldn’t be funded until well after the gates and dunes are built. These are small-scale, affordable measures that coastal governments could partner with nonprofit environmental organizations to accomplish much sooner. Coastal communities should continue to elevate homes, flood-proof buildings and critical infrastructure, and improve drainage systems. And buyouts of homes in floodplains must continue to be a part of this conversation.

Building the Ike Dike cannot become an excuse for complacency, nor can it be a one-time alignment of stars where all the levels of government unite behind a common goal. At a time when Texas is making headlines for all the wrong reasons, this is a chance for us to show the country that we can build stronger for the future, that we are united in at least one way to fight rising seas and vicious storms — but also that we’re clear-eyed enough to know that preventing doomsday will take even more work.


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