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hurricanes

We still have a lot of broken flood mitigation infrastructure

Did I mention that hurricane season is underway?

As the Atlantic hurricane season arrives Saturday, Harris County leaders say the region remains extremely vulnerable to major storms two years after Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented rains swamped the Houston area, forcing leaders to consider how flood protection projects can be sped up.

Ninety-five percent of the county’s flood control infrastructure damaged by Harvey has yet to be repaired, a testament to the scope of the monster storm and the laggard pace at which the federal government disburses funds. Though the county flood control district has begun projects supported by a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond passed by voters this past August, no major improvements have been completed.

The Harris County Flood Control District made $5 million in emergency fixes in the months following Harvey, such as clearing a dangerous silt build up in waterways leading into Addicks Reservoir. Engineers, however, had to wait for federal aid to begin the bulk of needed repairs.

“We literally could not start the construction before grants were in place because we would not have been reimbursed,” said Alan Black, the district’s director of operations.

[…]

The precarious state of Harris County’s flood control infrastructure leaves the region more vulnerable to storms like Harvey and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, where rainfall rather than high winds posed the greatest danger.

“If we have an exposed area where we’ve had erosion and slope failures, then yes, we’re susceptible to more damage,” Black said. “There’s no doubt about that.” The county has more than 200 sites across its 23 watersheds with eroded banks, collapsed slopes or submerged trees.

The flood control district is relying on three federal grants, totaling $86 million, to fund the repairs. The first appropriation arrived last August; the remaining two were delayed by the 35-day federal government shutdown beginning in December and were not approved until the spring. Now that Harris County has hired construction firms, the flood control district expects to complete the repairs by September 2020, three years after Harvey.

The good news is that we are expecting a modest hurricane season. The bad news, well, you already know what that is. We need some good luck this year, because our shields are down, and they’re going to be down for awhile.

Hurricane season again

As always, we hope for the best.

The National Hurricane Center predicted Thursday that a near-normal Atlantic hurricane season is most likely this year, meaning a likely range of nine to 15 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which four to eight could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including two to four major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher). Hurricane season begins June 1.

A near-normal season, of course, could still be hazardous for southeast Texas residents, who are two years removed from Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that dumped 51 inches of rain in some parts of Greater Houston. That storm damaged 100,000 homes and left around 80 people dead in Texas, most in the Houston-Galveston area.

Matt Lanza, a forecast meteorologist in Houston’s energy sector and the managing editor of the website Space City Weather, said National Hurricane Center predictions are careful not to forecast with certainty. While the likelihood of a “near-normal” hurricane season was assessed at 40 percent, the chance of a season slightly above or below normal was judged to be 30 percent.

“There’s a lot of hedging in there. That’s kind of the reality with these sort of things; hurricane forecasting is not a perfect science yet,” Lanza said. “It’s a good incentive for people to not let their guard down despite a normal to below-normal potential season.”

Experts generally agree that the ongoing El Niño event, in which surface temperatures become warmer than normal in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, portends a quieter hurricane season.

But Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist for Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project, said the intensity of El Niño is subject to debate, and the phenomenon might not suppress hurricane development as much as it did in 2018.

“What (El Niño) does is basically it changes the circulation of the tropics in such a way that you get strong westerly winds that shear and tear apart hurricanes in the Atlantic, and especially in the Caribbean,” Klotzbach said. “The magnitude of the El Niño definitely plays a role; it’s not just that you hit this magical threshold and nothing happens.”

Definitely better to have a “normal” season being forecast than a busy one. This is one of those situations where it’s not just about the quantity, since as we well know it only takes one storm to make it a very bad year. We’re still getting funds related to Harvey – the Lege put up $1.7 billion for flood control, while Congressional Republicans continue to screw around with a national disaster relief bill – so it would be very nice if we could avoid anything nasty this year. Keep your fingers crossed.

Another big flood would be bad

Breaking news, but this is worth paying attention to.

Housing sales would drop, gasoline prices would increase and Texas would lose hundreds of billions of dollars in economic output if a major storm struck an unprotected coastline, according to a new study.

The joint study by Texas A&M University at Galveston and the Texas General Land Office assesses the storm surge impacts on the three counties along Galveston Bay — Galveston, Harris, and Chambers — and explores how flooding from a severe storm would impact different sectors of the local and national economies.

The study finds that a 500-year storm would result in an 8 percent decrease in Gross State Product by 2066, an $853 billion loss. (A 500-year flood has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a given year. Hurricane Harvey was the third such event in the Houston area in three years.)

With a coastal barrier in place, the study found, economic losses would be significantly less harmful. Gross State Product would still decline after a 500-year storm, but only by 2 percent. Housing sales would decrease by 2 percent, while petroleum and chemical output would decline by 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

[…]

The economic outlook for an unprotected Houston-Galveston region ravaged by a storm surge is bleak, the report shows.

Housing sales would decline by nearly 8 percent, a $39.5 billion loss. Revenues in the petrochemical sector would decline by 19 percent, a $175.4 billion loss, while prices on petroleum products would increase by 13 percent.

Nationally, following an unprotected, 500-year surge event in Galveston Bay, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product would be 1.1 percent lower by the end of the 50-year period, an estimated $863 billion dollar economic decline.

The GLO press release is here, and the website showing the result of various scenarios is here. The Army Corps has recommended a particular plan for a coastal barrier, though some people disagree with the option that was selected. Be that as it may, the point here is that however expensive an Ike Dike may be, the cost of doing nothing is potentially much greater, with long-lasting effects. We have seen very clearly that the “500 year” part of “500 year storm” doesn’t mean what it once did. How much are we willing to risk remaining unprotected when the next one hits?

Who needs disaster recovery funds?

Not this guy.

Rep. Chip Roy

A bipartisan group of Texas members of Congress will have to wait until early next month to see passage on a long-sought measure that will release more than $4 billion dollars in aid to parts of Texas that bear the brunt of hurricanes.

Legislation that swiftly passed the U.S. Senate on Thursday afternoon came to an abrupt halt on the U.S. House side at the hand of a Texan — U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, an Austin Republican.

The bill allocated over $19 billion in disaster funding for nine states and two territories. But most Texans in Congress were focused on the bill’s provision that created a 90-day deadline for the Office of Management and Budget to release billions in grant funds to Texas that Congress approved more than a year ago after Hurricane Harvey.

The disaster funding bill had languished in both chambers. But then, on Thursday, congressional leaders and President Donald Trump were able to break the logjam, and the bill swiftly passed the Senate, 85-8. The chamber’s two Texans — Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz — voted for it.

By that point, most of the U.S. House was headed home for the Memorial Day recess. Members are not expected to return until June 3. The hope, among backers of the bill, was that the House would pass the bill with a voice vote – a measure that would only work if there were no objections within the chamber.

Some Texas sources had anticipated an objection to the move, but that it turned out to be a fellow Texan shocked a number of them Friday morning.

Roy’s core objection was procedural: He didn’t like the notion of moving the bill forward after the House had left town, with little time to process legislation of that scale, according to a statement he released Friday. He further blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for not holding members in Washington to vote on the bill.

[…]

With the assumption that the bill passes when Congress returns from Memorial Day recess at the beginning of June, the OMB could end up waiting until late summer to release the funds — a time frame that blows past much of hurricane season, which begins June 1.

Eh, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. Whoever heard of a hurricane hitting Texas in the summertime? Chip Roy is a minion of Ted Cruz, who sent out an ill-timed press release lauding the quick delivery of Harvey funds before Roy’s little power ply. He learned at the feet of the master, Ted. Anyway, just a reminder that CD21 is one of the DCCC-targeted districts this cycle. We don’t have a candidate yet, but Wendy Davis has expressed interest in running. I figure this stunt will come up in the course of the campaign next year.

Climate change and hurricanes

We’re living it now.

Photo: NOAA/NASA GOES-16

A group of top hurricane experts, including several federal researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, published striking new research Thursday, suggesting that hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean have grown considerably worse and that climate change is part of the reason why.

The study focused on rapid intensification, in which hurricanes may grow from a weak tropical storm or Category 1 status to Category 4 or 5 in a brief period. They found that the trend has been seen repeatedly in the Atlantic in recent years. It happened before Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and before Hurricane Michael pummeled the Gulf Coast with little warning last fall. Hurricane Michael, for example, transformed from a Category 1 into a raging Category 4 in the span of 24 hours.

The study, published in Nature Communications, describes its conclusion in blunt language, saying the Atlantic already has seen “highly unusual” changes in rapid hurricane intensification, compared to what models would predict from natural swings in the climate. That led researchers to conclude that climate change played a significant role.

“Natural variability cannot explain the magnitude of the observed upward trend,” they wrote. The research was led by Kieran Bhatia, who conducted the research as a graduate researcher at Princeton University and NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.

“There’s just a whole host of issues that come along with rapid intensification, and none of them are good,” said Jim Kossin, one of the study’s authors and a hurricane expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The increase in prevalence of rapidly intensifying storms, Kossin said, means both that there are more strong storms overall and that there are more risky situations near land.

“Rapid intensification is exceedingly dangerous because people, they’re not warned adequately, they’re not prepared, many of them don’t evacuate,” he said.

The findings come in the wake of two of the most damaging years for hurricanes and other extreme events. In 2017, according to NOAA figures, the United States saw $306 billion in disaster losses, largely driven by Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma. In 2018, Hurricanes Florence and Michael were major factors in a $91 billion damage total.

You can see the study here. People can believe whatever they want to believe about climate change. We’re going to experience the effects of it regardless.

Will we build the right Ike Dike?

Not everyone thinks the best design was chosen.

Jim Blackburn, a Rice professor and co-director of [Rice] university’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, says the Corps’ initial Ike Dike study was incomplete because it did not account for the more powerful storms that have swept through the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean in recent years. The Corps’ coastal plan, called the Ike Dike, is named for the 2008 hurricane that caused more than $30 billion in damages to the Houston-Galveston region.

Hurricanes more powerful than Ike, including Harvey, Irma and Maria all in 2017, had unique characteristics rarely seen in major storms, Blackburn said.

“The storms that are being analyzed by the Corps are, in my opinion, too small,” Blackburn said. “They’re just not making landfall at the worst locations, with the type of wind fields and characteristics we’re seeing. I can’t remember if it was (Hurricanes) Irma or Maria, it was an Ike-like storm with Category 5 winds. That’s not supposed to happen.”

Larry Dunbar, a project manager at the SSPEED Center, added that the modeling system the Corps used to predict the effects of storms on its proposed barrier was outdated and that the study did not account for the worst possible storm tracts that could hit the Houston area.

“We said we’re using the updated information because that’s what we do, and (the Army Corps of Engineers) said, ‘That’s fine, we’re gonna use the old model because that’s what the flood insurance study work was based on and we want to be consistent with that,’” Dunbar said. “I can’t argue with that, but we at least now know what’s the difference between the two models, what effect it has, its effect on larger storms, you know it, I know it.”

Blackburn also believes the Corps’ proposed barrier leave parts of Harris County — most notably the Port of Houston and the sprawling industrial and petrochemical facilities along Galveston Bay — vulnerable.

“We think that there is too much remaining surge exposure, and it’s a valid concern, both with regard to the ship channel, to the Bayport Industrial Complex and with regard to the Clear Lake area,” Blackburn said.

The Corps’ alternative proposal includes a navigation gate placed along the Houston Ship Channel and smaller gates built near Clear Creek and Dickinson Bayou, but does not go as far as the SSPEED Center’s proposal for a mid-bay gate to protect Galveston Bay.

The Galveston Bay Park plan, first proposed by the SSPEED Center in 2015, includes similar protection features as the Corps proposal for protecting Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston, but adds a vital component: a 25-foot, mid-bay barrier system that would protect the industrial complexes and densely populated areas in the west and northwest sections of Galveston Bay.

Blackburn views the mid-bay gate as part of a bifurcated system — an internal barrier and a coastal barrier — that would not preclude the Ike Dike concept favored by the Corps and political leadership on the local, state and federal levels. He called the gate a “highly complementary” feature to the extensive barrier the Corps put forth, but one that could be built in half the time at a fraction of the cost — estimated from $3 billion to $5 billion.

“We think this alternative needs to be permitted,” Blackburn said. “We’re going to be urging Harris County to investigate filing a permit application. We are going to argue that to any governmental entity that is interested. I think we need options. If all of our eggs are in a $30 billion federal appropriation, that just sounds too risky to me.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the documents that are up for public review. There are a series of public meetings scheduled for this, and you can offer your own feedback at one of them, via email to CoastalTexas@usace.army.mil, or via good old fashioned snail mail to:

USACE, Galveston District, Attn: Ms. Jennifer Morgan, Environmental Compliance Branch, Regional Planning and Environmental Center, P.O. Box 1229, Galveston, TX 77553-1229

Deadline for snail mail is January 9. Whatever the best solution is, I hope everyone who wants to have a say does so, and that the Army Corps listens to Professors Blackburn and Dunbar.

Army Corps to present Ike Dike options

About time.

Later this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will recommend a multi-billion-dollar plan to help protect the Texas coast — the Houston area in particular — from hurricanes. When it will become a reality, however, is anyone’s guess.

The more than 200-year-old agency — in partnership with the Texas General Land Office — embarked on the largest study in its history in 2014 to determine how best to guard the Bayou City and other coastal communities from devastating storm surge.

Four years later, the agency has devised four proposals for the Houston area; it will announce which one it thinks is best on Oct. 26 and open a 75-day public comment period, according to Kelly Burks-Copes, a project manager at the Army Corps’ Galveston District.

The plans are distinctly different — one of them has an alternate variation — but all include a mixture of new levees, improvements to existing levees and seawalls and the installation of so-called “navigation” gates, which would be closed ahead of storms to protect densely populated areas southeast of Houston and the city’s port — home to the largest refining and petrochemical complex in the nation, which saw significant flooding during Hurricane Harvey — from the deadly swells generated by a hurricane’s strong winds. That storm surge can result in major flooding even before a storm makes landfall.

One of the plans calls for the construction of a 17-foot-high levee along the entirety of Galveston Island, which is about 27 miles long, and the barrier island to its north, Bolivar Peninsula — a concept that has been dubbed the “coastal spine.” Another includes a levee through most of Bolivar but not Galveston. Others call for the construction of new levees and floodwalls further inland. All the plans include the installation of navigation gates in various places and the construction of a so-called “ring levee” around the heart of the Galveston that would protect the island’s backside from retreating storm surge.

Here’s the study. The four proposals are:

Alternative A: Coastal Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Galveston Ring Levee
Alternative B: Coastal Barrier (Modified)
Alternative C: Mid Bay Barrier
Alternative D: Upper Bay Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Bay Rim

Click over to read what they mean. There are also nine Ecosystem Restoration proposals to go along with this. As the story notes, both the original “Ike Dike” idea, proposed in 2008, and the more recent SSPEED Centennial Gate, or maybe the even more recent mid-bay gate, I’m honestly not sure, are in the running. Like I said, go see for yourself what’s on the table. One winner will emerge, and we’ll get a public comment period after that, and then we just need to solve the trivial problem of funding. No big deal, right?

STEAR-ing help to those who need it

Did you even know there was a state registry to help people with mobility challenges in the event of a natural disaster?

Texas has a system in place to identify people with disabilities who will need extra help during a natural disaster. But it’s unclear whether any of the people described in the emails signed up for or even knew about it. It’s also unclear how many people actually received help through the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry, or STEAR, during Harvey.

But as the recovery continues a year after Harvey’s Aug. 25, 2017, landfall, there’s tension and confusion in the disabled community about whether the registry will actually work when they really need it. As of November, 75,733 Texans were registered with STEAR, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The registry allows people with disabilities and special medical needs to sign up to receive priority status for evacuations, shelters, wellness checks, power and water shutdowns and information on support services.

More than half of STEAR registrants have physical, sensory, mental health, cognitive, or intellectual needs that affect their ability to function independently. Many don’t have a vehicle and have no way to evacuate without assistance.

In a disaster, disabled people are more at risk: wheelchairs or walkers may be left behind during an evacuation, a shelter may not be able to fully accommodate needs like accessible showers for people with mobility impairment, quiet areas for people with autism or space for someone who weighs 350 pounds or more. Some cannot afford multiple nights in a hotel.

While the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Division of Emergency Management administers the registry, the agency does not provide direct services to STEAR registrants during emergencies. The agency’s webpage notes that there are no guarantees for help.

“Your information will be provided to participating local governments for their use in developing emergency management plans and to assist them in preparedness and response activities,” according to the website.

While local officials can use the registry to dispatch emergency personnel and plan ahead for who may need special assistance during an evacuation, there’s no requirement that they use the registry — and no protocols for how to use it.

Lex Frieden, a professor of biomedical informatics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and one of the authors of the American Disabilities Act, said “it’s just maddening, frankly” that the database was not used to its fullest potential during Harvey, which caused more than 90 deaths.

“It was a tacit contract that promised people who felt they might need help at some point and volunteered the information, they would be rescued if needed and checked upon after the disaster,” Frieden said.

Rick Flanagan, emergency manager for the City of Houston, said his office and emergency responders were fielding thousands and thousands of calls during the historic storm. Typically, the office uses STEAR five days or more in advance to tell registrants where to go and help them get out of the city. But with the magnitude of Harvey, Flanagan said they wound up not using the system. “We got really tied up with the different locations and multiple locations of events and the high call volumes,” Flanagan said. “We did not use the STEAR structure as it could’ve been used.”Asked if they hoped to use STEAR for future disasters he said: “Oh my god, do we want to use it? Yes we do.”

The STEAR website is here. Having a system like STEAR in place makes all kinds of sense. The city of Houston and the Houston Fire Department have something like this for high-rise office buildings so firefighters know going in who on a given floor might need help evacuating. We periodically remind people about it where I work, and it includes people with permanent disabilities as well as those whose mobility is temporarily compromised. But any system is only as good as its implementation, and if it’s not useful when it’s really needed, then it needs an overhaul. All I can say is that I hope the state and the local governments that use STEAR learned something from Harvey to make whatever improvements it requires.

The Cornyn Ike Dike bill

Credit where credit is due.

With hurricane season right around the corner, Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said Wednesday he is introducing legislation to expedite a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study on a coastal barrier to mitigate storm damage along the Texas coast.

The measure, the Coastal Texas Protection Act, is directed at advancing the construction of a long-awaited “Ike Dike” or Coastal Spine – proposed after Hurricane Ike in 2008 – to better protect the Gulf Coast from storm damage.

“We’ve been working with local stakeholders as well as state officials to try to encourage this process to move along quickly,” Cornyn said. “The Corps of Engineers is an instrumental part of this, and we want them to finish these studies and come up with a plan that the stakeholders and the state can agree upon, and then we will work hard to make sure that coastal protection plan is funded.”

[…]

In 2016, Cornyn advanced legislation signed by then President Barack Obama to streamline the Army Corps engineering studies.

According to a Cornyn aide, the 2016 bill prevented the Corps from duplicating efforts by requiring them to take into account studies that had already been conducted by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District (GCCPRD).

The new bill would direct the Corps to expedite the completion of the Coastal Texas Study. It also provides a necessary exception for the project under the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA). Currently, the CBRA restricts the expenditure of federal funds associated with coastal barriers to avoid encouraging development of such barriers.

Kudos to Cornyn, who is capable of getting stuff done when he wants to. Of course, introducing a bill is not the same as passing it, and the Republican Congress has a crappy track record by any measure. You have to start somewhere, and this is it. Check again in a couple months and see if it’s gone anywhere.

There will never be a hurricane named Harvey again

Or Irma or Maria or Nate.

Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate were so destructive and deadly during the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season that the World Meteorological Organization’s Hurricane Committee decided this week to retire those names from future Atlantic Basin tropical cyclone name lists.

Just as no New York Yankee will ever again wear number 3 (Babe Ruth), nor will a Green Bay Packer ever claim 15 (Bart Starr), no future Atlantic hurricane will ever be named Harvey, Irma, Maria or Nate.

Unlike an athlete’s number, however, there is no celebration when an Atlantic name is retired from future use.

Contrary to popular opinion, a committee of the World Meteorological Organization – not the U.S. National Hurricane Center – is responsible for the tropical cyclone name lists.

Atlantic hurricane and tropical storm name lists repeat every six years, unless one is so destructive and/or deadly that the committee votes to retire that name from future lists. This avoids the use of, say, Katrina, Sandy or Maria to describe a future weak, open-ocean tropical storm.

The names Harold, Idalia, Margot and Nigel will replace Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate when the list is reused again in the year 2023.

I think I knew that hurricane names get retired – five names were discontinued after 2005, the year of Katrina, which is the record for one year – but I hadn’t thought about it till I saw this story. It makes sense, for the reason given. Let’s hope that this year no storms give the WMO a reason to take this action.

Busy hurricane season predicted

Welcome to summer, y’all.

The nation’s climate agency on Thursday predicted an above-normal 2017 hurricane season with 11 to 17 named storms, five to nine of them hurricanes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a 45 percent chance of the hurricane season that begins June 1 being above normal, a 35 percent chance of a normal season and a 20 percent chance of a below-normal season. An average season is 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

The agency said it expected two to four of the hurricanes to be Category 3 or higher.

“The outlook reflects our expectation of a weak or non-existent El Niño, near- or above-average sea-surface temperatures across the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea and average or weaker-than-average vertical wind shear in that same region,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

Bell said a strong El Niño causes more intense wind shear, which tends to break up tropical disturbances before they can grow into a hurricane. He cautioned that chances were 50-50 that a stronger El Niño could develop later in the hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30.

[…]

The United States has had a long run of good luck, said Ben Friedman, acting NOAA administrator. “It’s been a record 12 years since a Category 3 or higher storm has hit the United States, Friedman said.

And it’s been nine years since Hurricane Ike, which caused a lot of problems even if it wasn’t nearly as bad a storm as it could have been. It’s not unreasonable to think that people have relaxed a bit recently, given how mild the storm seasons have been since then. Be prepared, don’t panic, and if you live in Katy go ahead and start evacuating now. Texas Monthly has more.

Texas asks for Ike Dike money from the feds

Good luck with that.

Almost a decade after Hurricane Ike killed dozens of people and caused $30 billion in damage, a group of Texas politicians and business leaders say they finally have “all the support necessary” to break ground on a massive coastal barrier that would protect the Houston area from another devastating hurricane.

Now they just need $15 billion to build it. And that’s what they urged the federal government to provide in a recent letter to President Donald Trump.

Signers of the letter include Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, more than 20 area mayors, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and several Houston-area members of the Texas Legislature.

[…]

Even for a president that has pledged to restore the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, the barrier will be a tough sell. Such an ambitious public works project has never been built 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.

The massive projects that do get funding also usually require years of planning and federal studies. In December, then-President Barack Obama signed a law that might help speed up that process for the Ike Dike, but there is still no official consensus plan on exactly what to build. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will have the final say on what plan to pursue and is conducting its own study of the issue, has estimated that construction on any such system for Texas couldn’t begin until 2024 at the earliest.

And it might take far more than $15 billion to get the coastal spine up and running. Some have estimated it will actually cost twice that to build it, not including the money necessary for continued maintenance and operation of the barrier system.

We know what Trump’s promises are worth, so take that “pledge” with an appropriate amount of sea salt. That said, there’s no real precedent for this as noted in the story, and it’s not like the Republican Congress is inclined to spend money on anything but the Pentagon and tax cuts for the rich. So yeah, go ahead and ask – it costs nothing to ask – but don’t get your hopes up. The Chron has more.

What is the environmental impact of building an Ike Dike?

Maybe we should try to figure that out.

Plans for building a massive storm-surge protection system for the Houston area are rushing ahead before officials determine whether the project could harm Galveston Bay, environmental groups say.

The Sierra Club and the Galveston Bay Foundation, the environmental groups most closely watching the planning process, worry that there’s been too much focus on how to build the so-called Ike Dike and not enough on its impact on the bay.

“The Ike Dike has gained traction and local government support,” said Scott Jones, spokesman for the Galveston Bay Foundation. “We understand that, but we don’t think the environmental questions have been answered.”

Brandt Mannchen, spokesman for the Sierra Club’s Houston Regional Group, agreed. “We really need to look at the environmental impacts and, from our standpoint, should have looked at them first. We are kind of doing this backward.”

[…]

The groups are concerned that political momentum for the existing proposal may be so strong by then that the study results will have little influence.

“Maybe the Ike Dike is the best thing since Wonder Bread, but right now we don’t know because we haven’t looked at it,” Mannchen said.

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. I guess we need someone to create some models of the various proposals, to simulate what the effects of building them are, as well as the effect of having them or not having them in place when a big storm hits. It may be that even with some negative effects from the construction, the mitigation in the event of nightmare hurricane is more than enough to make it worthwhile. Or not. Who knows? It sure would be nice if we did.

Obama signs Cornyn flood mitigation bill

The title to this post is a bit of an overbid, but this is still a good thing.

President Obama on Monday signed into law a bill that could help expedite the long process of constructing a hurricane protection system for the Texas coast, including the particularly vulnerable Houston region.

The “Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation,” or WIIN, Act contains a major provision of another bill U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed in April — the month after The Texas Tribune and ProPublica published an interactive report exploring the dire impacts of a monster storm hitting the nation’s fourth-largest city and its massive petrochemical complex. Scientists are still fine-tuning plans to protect against such an event, which they say could kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people and cripple the economy and environment.

Most agree on the need to build a project known as the “coastal spine,” a massive floodgate and barrier system, but there is no official consensus plan. (State lawmakers have asked scientists to settle on a plan to protect the coast, but they’re still in disagreement.) The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will have the final say on what plan to pursue and is conducting its own study of the issue, has estimated that construction on any such system for Texas couldn’t begin until 2024 at the earliest.

The bill Cornyn filed in April, called the “Corps’ Obligation to Assist in Safeguarding Texas,” or COAST, Act, was designed to hurry things along by requiring the Corps to take local studies on the issue into account (one by a six-county coalition, in particular) and by eliminating the need for Congress to authorize construction of whatever project the Corps ends up recommending.

The bipartisan WIIN Act includes only the former provision requiring the Corps to account for local studies, meaning Congress still will have to sign off on any plan. (The COAST Act passed the Senate in September but never passed the House.)

See here for some background. We’re still a long way from something being built, as we lack such minor details as consensus on what to build and a funding mechanism for it. But this is a step forward, so credit to Sen. Cornyn for shepherding the bill through and to President Obama for signing it. The Current and Space City Weather have more.

Two Ike Dike updates

Ike Dike could be hidden by dunes:

The “Ike Dike” that is being proposed to protect the Galveston-Houston area from a potentially catastrophic hurricane storm surge could take the form of undulating sand dunes hiding a steel or concrete core.

The proposal to craft a storm barrier that would blend in with the environment and potentially strengthen beaches against erosion is one of three proposals for where and how to build a surge barrier, an idea that has gained considerable political momentum and is likely to be the subject of some form of action when the Legislature convenes next year.

The six-county Gulf Coast Protection and Recovery District, known as the storm surge district, has looked at placing the surge barrier landward of the highways that run along the coast on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula. Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (or SSPEED) has recommended raising the highways as the most economical way to build a surge barrier and still ensure an evacuation route as storm water rises. Several people died during Hurricane Ike in 2008 as rising tides isolated them on the highway.

Placing the surge barrier on the beach, as has been done successfully in the Netherlands, is a proposal being pushed by the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University at Galveston. Engineering the storm barrier to be part of the natural landscape would create habitat for plants and animals and protect homes between the beach and the highway that otherwise would be left to the mercy of the storm, said Sam Brody, who teaches marine science at the center.

Brody conceded that it will be more expensive to build the barrier along the beach and will increase the estimated $5.8 billion cost. “The added cost of restoring and enhancing the environment is worth it over the long term,” Brody said.

The idea is getting no resistance from the SSPEED Center and the storm surge district. “We don’t have a strong position one way or the other,” SSPEED Center Co-director Jim Blackburn said. Chris Sallese, program manager for the storm surge district, said his agency looked at building the barrier landward of the highway because SSPEED and Texas A&M were looking at the other alternatives and the district wanted to make sure all possibilities were examined.

Coastal barrier plan ‘Ike Dike’ draws support, needs funding:

If there is a lesson from the devastation of Hurricane Ike eight years ago, it is that the Houston-Galveston region is extremely vulnerable to a catastrophic storm surge, and the next hurricane could send the regional economy into a deep tailspin.

But plans to protect the region from such a storm surge have lagged as officials and experts argued about whether to build a major coastal barrier called the “Ike Dike” or a series of smaller projects that could be completed more quickly.

Now, there is strong support for building the $11.6 billion Ike Dike plan, designed to keep a massive storm surge from rushing into developed areas. A six-county storm surge district recently recommended a plan that calls for 277 miles of coastal barriers, including raised seawalls, levees and surge gates.

[…]

Planners have completed studies showing that the Ike Dike could prevent $38 billion in losses and save 151,000 jobs over a 50-year lifespan.

Unlike earlier proposals, the plan now backed by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, also known as the storm surge district, recommends raising the Galveston seawall by 4 feet, building a levee on the bay side of Galveston and a gate at Clear Lake. A proposed gate at San Luis Pass on the west end of Galveston Island was eliminated.

Differences remain over how to block a storm surge inside Galveston Bay and how close to the beach to build the surge barrier. Some also worry about the environmental effect of a proposed surge gate between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

Larry Dunbar, project manager for Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center, told legislators that it was better to move ahead with smaller projects, such as the center’s proposal for a gate inside Galveston Bay, that could be financed locally.

“Are we going to sit back and wait for the federal government to give us the $10 billion we need?” Dunbar asked. “We believe … it can be built in pieces if necessary.”

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. I don’t have a point to make, I just wanted to note this stuff before it got completely lost in the 2016 election hole. Actually, I will say that if Sen. John Cornyn wanted to propose some kind of funding mechanism for this, I’d bet President Hillary Clinton would be amenable to working with him on it. Just a thought.

Turner endorses Ike Dike

Interesting.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has endorsed the “Ike Dike” storm surge protection proposal, raising the possibility that Houston could be one of the last cities in the Galveston Bay area to endorse the $6 billion project.

If the Houston City Council passes a resolution endorsing the Ike Dike concept, the Bayou City would become the 27th municipality in the region to back the plan aimed at protecting Harris, Galveston and Chambers counties.

A Houston City Council resolution supporting the plan would give important political momentum to the Ike Dike concept, which would need federal money to be undertaken.

“I look forward to advancing this effort with my colleagues on the Houston City Council,” Turner wrote in his Aug. 5 letter to state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, and state Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Port Arthur, the co-chairman of the Texas Joint Interim Committee to Study a Coastal Barrier System.

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. There have been two main hangups to getting something done for hurricane mitigation – agreeing on a single plan, and funding it. Mayor Turner’s endorsement of the Ike Dike consolidates support for that particular idea, and consolidating political support behind one plan makes it more likely that Congress will eventually be persuaded to cough up some money to pay for it. Getting the Lege behind that plan, which is what the Mayor’s letter alludes to, would help with that as well. Another thing to keep an eye on next spring.

Welcome to hurricane season

Looks normal so far, but you know how that can go.

Federal officials on Friday predicted between four and eight hurricanes will form in the Atlantic Ocean this year, and up to to four of those could become a major storm.

That kind of activity reflects a “near normal” Atlantic hurricane season, which starts June 1 and runs until November 30.

Still, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials advised the public not to get hung up on the number of hurricanes predicted. Be prepared, they urged.

“It only takes one,” said Laura Furgione, National Weather Service deputy director.

[…]

The long-term hurricane season for the Atlantic averages are 12 named storms, with six hurricanes and three “major” ones with winds topping 110 mph.

There have already been two named storms so far this year, Hurricane Alex in January and Tropical Storm Bonnie last weekend. Neither caused any real problems, but as we well know, it doesn’t take a named storm to do a lot of damage. Go restock your emergency supplies, and review your evacuation plans as needed. Better to have them and not need them, and all that.

Cornyn files bill to speed up floodgate construction process

Credit where credit is due.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed legislation Wednesday that he says would expedite the long process of constructing a hurricane protection system for the Texas coast, including the particularly vulnerable Houston region.

But while local officials cheered the high-profile support, it’s unclear how much the measure would actually speed anything up.

Most agree on the need to build a project known as the “coastal spine” — a massive floodgate and barrier system — to protect the Houston region from a devastating hurricane that could kill thousands and cripple the national economy. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that construction on any such system for Texas couldn’t begin until 2024 at the earliest.

Cornyn’s bill is intended to hurry things along by requiring the Corps to take local studies into account and by eliminating the need for Congress to authorize construction of whatever project the Corps recommends.

The Corps has already said it would consider locally done studies, however. And while getting rid of the need for Congressional authorization could shave off a small amount of time, the real hurdle will be getting Congress to help fund what is sure to be a multi-billion-dollar project.

“The devil’s in the details, right?” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership. “But I will tell you that for the senator to step up and start this process is very positive, and it can’t do anything but help … the positive is Senator Cornyn has done something, and we’ve got to build on it.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Shortly thereafter, Cornyn’s bill had a House companion.

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.

As you know, I have zero faith that Congress will pay for any of this. I think Cornyn will have a hard enough time just getting his bill to a vote in the Senate, and I have less faith that Weber can do the same in the dismal catastrophe that is the Republican-controlled House. Nonetheless, someone still has to file a bill like this, so kudos to Sen. Cornyn and Rep. Weber for taking the first step. They has their work cut out for them from here, and they are both a part of the reason why it’s basically impossible to get stuff like this done nowadays, but they did file their bills, so good on them for that. The Press has more.

Don’t expect Congress to pay for a Gulf Coast floodgate system

I sure don’t.

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.

[…]

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.

[…]

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.

See here, here, and here for the background. I say the odds of Congress agreeing to pony up some $10 billion or so for a coastal floodgate system are pretty damn low. I cannot imagine Randy Weber’s nihilistic teabagger caucus members going along with it. Hell, I’d bet money right now that the Texas Republican Congressional caucus is not all on board with the idea, and I’ll even exclude Ted Cruz from consideration. Look at the recent track record of Congressional Republicans not wanting to appropriate funds to places that had been hit by actual disasters (two words: Superstorm Sandy) and ask yourself why they would vote to spend money on a disaster that hasn’t happened and may never do so in their lifetime. All spending is political now, and the death of earmarks makes dealmaking a lot harder. The fact that there isn’t unanimity about the best kind of flood mitigation system doesn’t help, either. Maybe someday, in a different political climate, but not now. Don’t be surprised if you see another article like this being written a couple of years from now.

Not everyone likes the latest hurricane surge protection plan

Yet another obstacle.

A new proposal to protect the Houston area from hurricanes is reigniting controversy, and potentially diminishing the odds that a consensus will emerge anytime soon on the best plan to safeguard the nation’s fifth-largest metropolitan area.

Since Hurricane Ike in 2008, Texas scientists have pushed several different plans to shield the region, home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex, from devastating storm surge.

Some accord emerged in recent years around a $6 billion-to-$8 billion Dutch-inspired concept called the “coastal spine,” creating some hope that state and federal lawmakers may have a single proposal to champion before the next big hurricane hits. The concept — an expanded version of another, dubbed the “Ike Dike” — is designed to impede storm surge right at the coast with a 60-mile seawall along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula. A massive floodgate between the two landmasses would be closed ahead of a storm. Several dozen communities have endorsed the coastal spine — conceived at Texas A&M University at Galveston — along with some state lawmakers, the Texas Municipal League and at least one major industry group.

But a six-county coalition studying how best to proceed now says a 56-mile, mostly mainland levee system — several components of which have been proposed before by other entities — would provide a nearly equivalent level of protection while costing several billion dollars less. The catch: several Houston-area communities on the west side of Galveston Bay, including Kemah, La Porte, Seabrook, Morgan’s Point and San Leon, would be left outside the dike.

And officials from those communities say that is unacceptable.

“Just the fact that it’s mentioned — I take it as a serious threat,” Seabrook Mayor Glenn Royal said.

The $3.5 billion proposal by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, unveiled in a report last week, calls for expanding and extending an existing levee around Texas City northward along State Highway 146 and westward to the community of Santa Fe. The recovery district’s plan also calls for placing a “ring” levee around the entire city of Galveston to protect it from storm surge. (During hurricanes, the island gets hit by surge once from the front and a second time from the back when surge that reaches the mainland recedes.)

The part of the proposed levee closest to Texas City — home to three major refineries — sits right on Galveston Bay, but most of it is set back from the water, meaning the communities between it and the bay are left unprotected.

See here for the background, and be sure to read the whole thing. I’m not sufficiently informed to have an opinion about what the best option is, I’m just trying to stay on top of what’s out there.

Storm protection is expensive

But then so would be getting hit by a truly bad storm.

Building a storm surge protection system along the Texas Gulf Coast could cost between $7.9 billion and $11 billion, and likely would not be completed for about two decades, according to a new study.

The report by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, which includes six counties along the upper Texas coast, comes after years of urging by academics to take action to prevent a massive storm surge like the one spawned by Hurricane Ike.

The study analyzed the costs and benefits of a range of major infrastructure projects – from systems of levees to a giant gate in the Houston Ship Channel.

Robert Eckels, the district president, said even with the highest cost estimate of $11 billion, paying for surge protection is still far cheaper than the aftermath of Ike, which caused more than $30 billion in damage when it hit in 2008.

“Just the damage from Ike is more than double even what the most expensive alternatives are,” Eckels said.

But the study is likely to reignite a debate over how to best balance protecting the coast with the potential harm to the environment posed by artificial barriers.

[…]

The most expensive proposal, with a construction cost of $5.8 billion, involves building a 55-mile storm surge protection system that includes a massive navigation gate across the Houston Ship Channel. The alternative, at $3.5 billion, involves a series of separate systems that would not provide direct protection to the upper reaches of the ship channel.

We’ve been talking about this for years now, and while there’s no consensus on what the best course of remediation is, there’s definitely a consensus that a worst-case storm is a real if small possibility, and its effects would be devastating. Take a look at the Hell and High Water interactive slideshow put together by the Trib and ProPublica if you want to freak out a little. Of course, the first problem that has to be solved for this is how to pay for whatever we decide to do. I personally think that a combination of federal and state funds should be the source, but we can quibble over who pays how much for what. But first, we need to agree to Do Something. The rest can work itself out once we take that step. Swamplot has more.

Another floodgate proposed

Third time’s the charm, right?

Academic leaders have long beseeched government officials to learn from the damage caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and harden the upper Texas coast against future threats.

Finally, on Monday, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the feasibility of projects to limit flood and storm surge damage.

“It is time to take action,” said Bush, who came into office in January. “This has been a priority of mine since the campaign.”

That effort will build upon several previous studies, including one to be released Tuesday, which have found that a gate system in Galveston Bay, costing less than $3 billion, could provide protection from future hurricanes for $37 billion in chemical and other facilities along the Houston Ship Channel, as well as$9 billion in residential property.

These academic studies, funded by the Houston Endowment and managed by academic leaders from Rice University, the University of Houston, Texas A&M University at Galveston and other institutions, have presented a range of options to protect the coast.

The latest possibility calls for building a floodgate across the Ship Channel near San Leon.

This “mid-bay” gate would be tied to an extensive network of man-made reefs and island berms, most of which already exist, to safeguard not only industry along the Ship Channel but also homes in rapidly developing areas such as League City along the west side of Galveston Bay.

See here, here, and here for the background. Credit where credit is due, Bush is the first public official to get behind this idea, and if he can take it somewhere it will be a good thing. Cost has always been the main obstacle, but as the Trib reminds us, it’s not the only one.

Everything about the $2.8 billion plan from the Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, or SSPEED, screams compromise.

The proposed location is roughly halfway between the upper-bay Centennial Gate and the lower-bay Ike Dike — and borrows certain features from the latter, including some new levees and elevated roadways. Its estimated price tag also falls somewhere in the middle, but closer to the $1.5 billion Centennial Gate than the $4 billion to $8 billion estimate for the Ike Dike.

The “mid-bay” plan — contained in the first of three annual reports from the center, and so far lacking a catchy moniker — calls for installing a storm surge-deterring gate as tall as 25 feet across the nearly 700-foot-wide Houston Ship Channel near the community of San Leon. The manmade channel connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Houston, the busiest seaport in the U.S. by some measurements.

SSPEED Center officials say sophisticated storm modeling shows the structure would — in a Category 3 hurricane with wind speeds about 15 percent higher than those during Ike — “significantly reduce storm-surge flooding in both the Houston Ship Channel and in the heavily populated west Galveston Bay communities that are difficult to evacuate.”

That’s a direct response to the main criticism levied against the Centennial Gate, which coastal residents argued shielded the refineries along the ship channel at the expense of surrounding neighborhoods. (As for the Ike Dike, it has been criticized for its high cost and potential environmental impact.)

The mid-bay plan “is a much superior alternative in my mind at least than what we had previously looked at,” said Rice University professor Jim Blackburn, noting that “the consensus was that the Centennial Gate did not offer sufficient protection to the public and so we went back to the drawing board.”

Sometimes compromises satisfy everyone, and sometimes they piss everyone off. If this is more the former than the latter, then there ought to be some consensus to move forward, however slowly, towards a funding mechanism. If not, I figure we’ll see another story about another floodgate being proposed sometime next year. We’ll see how it goes.

Your annual “don’t get complacent about hurricanes” warning

You should know the drill by now.

It’s been seven years since a large hurricane – Hurricane Ike – threatened the Gulf states, and increasingly there’s talk among scientists that the Atlantic Ocean may be moving toward a more “quiet” period.

Hurricanes tend to come in bunches, and since about 1995 the Atlantic Ocean has burned hot with storms, spawning monster years in the 2000s when hurricanes like Katrina, Rita and Wilma pounded Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

Before then, in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, the Atlantic was comparatively quiet, with fewer named storms each season.

Now, after a 20-year, frenetic period, the cycle may be swinging back down. For the first time in a long time, sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic where hurricanes commonly form are cooler than normal. Seasonal forecasters predict fewer than 10 named storms this year, far below the 15 or more storms that have formed in most years since 1995.

[…]

[Chris Landsea, a senior scientist at the National Hurricane Center] says we need a few more hurricane seasons to know whether we really have entered a quiet period. Phil Klotzbach, a Colorado State University scientist known for publishing seasonal forecasts for hurricanes, is a little more confident.

The hurricane cycle is known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, or AMO, and it reflects changes in sea surface temperatures from the equator to the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic Ocean. Periods of increased hurricane activity correlate to warmer sea temperatures, and slower periods correspond to cooler temperatures.

Klotzbach tracks the AMO closely, and it has essentially been negative – cooler than normal – since 2012.

“I would say at this point that my confidence that the AMO has flipped to negative has grown somewhat,” he said. “If this hurricane season ends up being as quiet as we are predicting, that would make three below-average seasons in a row. The odds of three below-average seasons in a row in a positive AMO would be quite unlikely.”

You can see the NHC’s 2015 forecast here. As the story and the NHC scientists take pains to remind us, it only takes one storm to make a given season a catastrophe. Hurricane Alicia in 1983 hit during a similarly “quiet” period. So remember the lessons that have been drilled into us all over the years – have bottled water at hand, know your evacuation route or be prepared to shelter in place, and stay on top of the news. And if you live in Katy, run for your lives.

It’s hurricane season prediction time

And this year’s forecast is for a fairly quiet summer.

On Thursday, forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released their seasonal outlook for 2014, predicting eight to 13 named storms would form. This means, most likely, the Atlantic season total will fall below the normal 12 tropical storms and hurricanes during a given year.

Like NOAA’s, other seasonal forecasts issued this spring have predicted 75 to 90 percent of normal activity levels this year. The season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

[…]

Principally, they expect El Niño to develop this summer in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño, a rise in tropical Pacific sea temperatures, has global weather effects including stronger wind shear in the Atlantic tropics, which reduces the number and intensity of tropical systems.

“Atmospheric and oceanic conditions across the tropical Pacific are already taking on some El Niño characteristics,” said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal forecaster.

Other factors are suggested as well. A number of signs suggest water temperatures in the area of the Atlantic Ocean where storms most commonly form, between Africa and the Caribbean Islands, will be a bit cooler than normal later this summer.

“Cooler water means less heat content available for hurricanes to intensify, resulting in fewer strong hurricanes than normal,” said Chris Hebert, a hurricane forecaster with ImpactWeather, a Houston-based company.

See here for the official NOAA forecast page. Last year’s prediction of a busy season didn’t work out so well, but even the best are going to strike out now and again, and if the process is sound then the results will be there more often than not. Of course as noted even in an otherwise very light season, all it takes is one hurricane to hit where you are and the rest doesn’t matter. So be prepared and remember that if you live in Katy it’s never too early to start evacuating.

What happened to the hurricanes?

This had been predicted to be one of the busier hurricane seasons of recent years. It turned out to be one of the quietest. What happened?

“A combination of conditions acted to offset several climate patterns that historically have produced active hurricane seasons,” explained Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal hurricane forecaster. “As a result, we did not see the large numbers of hurricanes that typically accompany these climate patterns.”

[…]

Prior to the beginning of this season, which started June 1, forecasters were expecting to see higher-than-normal water temperatures and lower-than-normal pressure in the deep tropics, where most tropical systems form. Forecasters also expected water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean would remain in the cool or neutral range through the season.

All of these factors tend to boost hurricane activity in the Atlantic.

And during this season all of these things happened. And yet, there were no big storms.

“It turns out that there is an additional parameter that was not generally considered when making seasonal predictions,” said Chris Hebert, a hurricane forecaster with ImpactWeather, a company based in Houston.

Hebert said earlier this year, after it became obvious that the Atlantic activity would be well below normal, he searched for other factors at play and discovered that moisture levels in the midlevel of the atmosphere, about 18,000 to 25,000 feet above the surface, were well below normal.

I forget who said it, but as someone once said, true scientific advancement comes not with “Eureka!” but with “That’s funny…” This was one of the latter experiences, and with it the science of hurricane forecasting has advanced. This is how it’s supposed to work. Failure is a great learning experience. SciGuy has more.

Ike floodgate update

Call it Ike Dike 2.0 if you want.

Five years after Hurricane Ike devastated the upper Texas coast, a group of Houston scientists presented details Tuesday about a proposed gate to protect the Houston Ship Channel and much of the Bayou City’s industrial base during another hurricane.

Meeting at Rice University, the scientists generally agreed that a large gate at the entrance to the Ship Channel would provide a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to the Ike Dike.

Preliminary designs suggest the 600- to 800-foot-long gate, located either at the Fred Hartman Bridge or Morgan’s Point, would cost about $1.5 billion.

The question faced by the scientists now is: How best to move the concept of the “Centennial Gate” from academia and into a physical reality?

“We really need to find ourselves a political champion,” said Phil Bedient, a Rice University civil engineer and one of the gate’s chief proponents. “That’s what we’re going to do during the next few months.”

[…]

Hanadi Rifai, a University of Houston environmental engineer, has been studying how chemical industries along the Ship Channel would be affected had a stronger version of Hurricane Ike hit about 25 miles farther south along the coast, which would have pushed a much larger storm surge into Galveston Bay.

She found that if a Hurricane Ike with just 15 percent stronger winds hit near San Luis Pass, it would have devastating effects on the Ship Channel industries.

Tallying up losses to facilities, downtime, productivity and environmental charges, such a storm would produce an estimated $148 billion in economic losses to the Ship Channel.

“The question is not whether we need to do something, the question is what do we do,” Rifai said.

The first mention of this alternate idea was two years ago; see here and here for the previous incarnation. When you put it in the context that Prof. Rifai does, it sure does seem like a worthwhile idea. SciGuy goes further than that.

A gate, frankly, is a no-brainer. It is the lowest of low-hanging fruit for this region when it comes to better preparing ourselves for a large hurricane.

But I’m told by organizers of the Centennial Gate concept that Harris County officials — that would be commissioners and the county judge — have yet to express much interest in a gate.

The implication from this apparent disinterest is that it’s more important to ask the public for $217 million to repair a building whose best days are behind it than addressing the ship channel’s vulnerability. Someone needs to show some leadership and cobble together a coalition of public money, industry investment and federal funds to build a gate that would protect the region’s economy and environment. Such a gate would also very likely increase industrial investment in the ship channel, knowing that facilities built there would be hardened against the region’s sole major natural disaster.

As Ben Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The problem with building the Centennial Gate is that it requires government officials to be proactive, rather than reactive.

To be fair, they have to come up with a way to finance the thing – $1.5 billion is a lot less than $148 billion, but 1) it’s still a lot of money; 2) the risk of a multi-billion dollar loss due to hurricane damage is hard to quantify – it’s not nothing, but it’s hardly inevitable, and; 3) the voters still need to be convinced. This is a process, and these things take time, just as the Astrodome referendum was years in the making. It’s just that in the matter of the Ike floodgate, the question of time is a bet. See the SSPEED homepage and the floodgate brochure for more.

Welcome to hurricane season

Today is the start of hurricane season for 2013, and we should expect a bumpy ride for the next few months.

NOAA predicts an above normal, and possibly a hyper-active hurricane season:

  • 13-20 named storms
  • 7-11 hurricanes
  • 3-6 major hurricanes

This is about 50 percent more activity than occurs during a normal season. The main reason is higher-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the region of the Atlantic where hurricanes typically form, and no external factors that might dampen tropical activity.

[…]

Since 1950 there have been an average of 12 tropical storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes during the Atlantic season.

So forecasters clearly expect a busier season.

However seasonal forecasting is far from a hard science. It’s difficult to predict meteorological conditions across the Atlantic, and their effect on a storm season, four months before the busiest time of a hurricane season begins.

Still, a recent analysis by a reader here found that the seasonal forecasts issued by NOAA — which will come out next month — is correct about twice as often as chance would predict. That’s not a perfect record, but it wouldn’t stop me from making reasonable preparations for hurricane season now.

Know whether you need to evacuate. Know what you will bring. Have a plan for where to go. Be prepared to protect your house. The simple steps you take now can make a big difference if a storm does indeed threaten Texas this year.

You can enter the annual Hurricane Prediction Contest here. And, of course, if you live in Katy, run for your lives.

Busy hurricane season predicted

Start stocking up on batteries and bottled water.

Hunker down, y’all

Forecasters agree: The coming Atlantic hurricane season looks like a busy one.

A number of factors, principally higher-than-normal temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean where most tropical storms form, indicate this season will see a flurry of tropical activity.

“A wild season is on the way,” predicted Joe Bastardi, a noted hurricane forecaster with Weather Bell, a weather website.

That viewpoint was affirmed Wednesday when longtime seasonal forecasters William Gray and Phil Klotzbach, of Colorado State University, issued their first numerical prediction for the upcoming season, which begins June 1.

They are calling for 18 named storms, nine of which will be hurricanes and four of which will develop into major hurricanes. That’s about 50 percent more activity than during a normal season.

Klotzbach said the only potential check on activity this year is the slight chance that an El Niño might develop in the tropical Pacific, which would tend to limit Atlantic hurricane activity.

“I would say that we have moderate confidence in an active season at this point,” Klotzbach said. “There’s still a lot that could change with El Niño. If the tropical Pacific and tropical Atlantic look similar at the beginning of June to the way that they do now, I would say that our confidence would grow significantly.”

This season follows three years in which an anomalously high number of named storms – 19 – have formed.

The good news from our perspective is that the storms are likely to head north before entering the Gulf. That’s potentially very bad news for a lot of other people, though, and as well all know it only takes one big storm to make it a bad year. Not much else we can do except be prepared and hope for the best. SciGuy and Hair Balls have more.

Do July showers bring August hurricanes?

So we had a nice, wet, not too hot July that among other things help erase the drought in Harris County. What could possibly be bad about that? Increased risk of hurricanes, that’s what.

[Impact Weather forecaster Chris] Hebert studied the 20 wettest and 20 driest Julys on record for Houston and found a striking correlation with hurricane activity.

After 40 percent of the wettest Julys a major hurricane struck Texas or Louisiana during the remainder of that year’s hurricane season, Hebert said. But there were no major hurricane strikes after the driest Julys.

That’s in large part due to the location of the high – if it’s over southeast Texas, it’s going to steer storms away. If it’s not, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

“This year it looks like the upper Gulf coast will be open for business as we enter the busiest part of hurricane season,” Hebert said.

It’s always something, isn’t it? The good news is that we’re likely to have a short hurricane season thanks to El Niño. But it only takes one to make it a bad hurricane season, which is now officially underway, regardless of duration. SciGuy has more.

Here comes El Niño

Our hurricane season could be short.

The formation of Tropical Storm Debby last weekend in the Gulf of Mexico brought the tally of Atlantic storms to four this season, the earliest that’s ever happened.

But despite the quick beginning, scientists say this season may have a much quicker end, with an El Niño system likely to ride to the rescue later this summer.

“I’m becoming fairly confident that we will have a weak to moderate El Niño by the peak of this year’s hurricane season in September,” said Phil Klotzbach, a seasonal hurricane forecaster at Colorado State University.

Scientists have long understood that El Niño, a natural warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean, tends to suppress hurricane activity in the Atlantic.

But now, through a combination of research techniques, they’re beginning to gain a much deeper understanding of not only why but how El Niño changes the tracks of Atlantic storms and, crucially for Houston, how it may affect activity in the Gulf of Mexico.

[…]

Studies have found that, during the last 60 years, when an El Niño pattern prevailed during the Atlantic hurricane season, only one-quarter of those seasons had more activity than normal. During La Niña years, when Pacific tropical temperatures are cooler, two-thirds of years had more activity than normal.

El Niño years also produced fewer than average major hurricanes as well as fewer landfalling hurricanes.

Read the story for the technical details. Bottom line is that the early signs are for a less active hurricane season than usual. All it takes is one big one, of course, but I’d rather have the odds in our favor. As long as this doesn’t also presage another abnormally dry summer, it’s all good.

Friday random ten: Hurricane season

We are officially in hurricane season now, and though Texas missed out on TS Debby, we know there’s more to come. So here are ten storm songs to get you through.

1. Full Force Gale – Van Morrison
2. Ready For The Storm – Gordian Knot
3. Ill Wind – Lonette McKee
4. Stormy Weather – Julie Murphy
5. Hurricane Season – Trombone Shorty
6. And The Rain Crashed Down – Eddie From Ohio
7. Texas Flood – Stevie Ray Vaughan
8. Who’ll Stop The Rain – Creedence Clearwater Revival
9. Let The Wind Blow – Beach Boys
10. Storm Front – Billy Joel

No, I don’t have “Riding The Storm Out” or “Rock You Like A Hurricane” in my collection. Just assume they’re appropriate for any storm-related purpose. What do you listen to when it’s time to hunker down?

Calculate your storm risk

That hurricane risk calculator is now ready for your input.

Using the Storm Risk Calculator produced by the city of Houston and Rice University, users can enter an address and learn the risks for rainfall, power outage, storm surge and rain damage.

For example, Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s house in Midtown has a low risk of power outage and wind damage, and no risk of storm surge or rainfall with a Category 2 hurricane.

Users can adjust the strength of the hypothetical storm from a Category 1-5 to see how the risks increase and decrease depending on the size of the hurricane.

The goal is to keep Houstonians from leaving unnecessarily and creating the kind of mass reaction that followed Hurricane Rita in 2005, when tens of thousands evacuated for no real reason, causing highway congestion and panic, said Dennis Storemski, director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security.

Robert Stein, a political science professor at Rice, said the best way to get people to do something is to give them the information they need to make an educated decision.

Fair enough. The risk calculator can be found at risk.rtsnets.com. You can see the result of my calculation in the graphic above. I agree with the rainfall risk – our street has never flooded, though some nearby ones did during TS Allison – but I’m skeptical of the power outage risk. Our house was only without power for a day after Ike, but some folks a block away were down for more than a week. There’s a lot of trees in our neighborhood, and with trees come the risk of power lines being taken down. Regardless, now I know what the experts think, and you can too. See the Mayor’s press release for more.

How bad would a big hurricane be to Houston?

Very bad. I trust you are not surprised by this.

When a really strong hurricane next blows through Houston, its winds – not its waters – pose the greatest threat to inflict damage unimagined by most living here.

Tropical Storm Allison produced a virtually worst-case flooding scenario in 2001, racking up $5 billion in damages. Hurricane Ike produced a destructive surge of water, and its U.S. damages came to $29.5 billion.

Such water damages, however, are nothing compared to the threat of a mighty blow, which Houston has not truly experienced since 1915.

A new, but unpublished, study reveals the true scope of damage Houston could sustain from a major windstorm if a hurricane were to strike Galveston Island and barrel on through Harris County.

According to the analysis by Civil Tech Engineering, a Category 4 hurricane moving northwest at 10 mph would cause $309 billion in property damage and $65 billion in business interruptions.

The study predicts nearly 800,000 homes in Harris County would be severely damaged or destroyed – 80 percent of the total housing stock – along with 50,000 commercial buildings.

“That’s just wind damage,” said Melvin Spinks, president of Houston-based Civil Tech. “It doesn’t include flooding from rain or surge.”

[…]

“We’ve always known there was significant risk from some of these much larger storms,” said Sharon Nalls, the city of Houston’s emergency management coordinator.

What isn’t clear, she said, is whether residents understand that risk.

That’s partly why the city commissioned the study. Since its completion in May 2010, the results have been used to prepare better tools for home and business owners to assess their risks.

In the next couple of weeks the city will roll out two new websites, Nalls said.

One is an update of its “Houston Hide from the Wind” website, offering real-time estimates of wind speeds, by ZIP code, based upon National Hurricane Center forecasts. The website will now include information for Harris and surrounding counties, not just the city.

Secondly, the city will launch a website on which residents can enter an address to view the potential wind, flooding and surge threats to their property from various strengths of storms.

After the regional evacuation from Hurricane Rita produced a massive traffic jam in 2005, city and county officials launched a campaign to better inform residents about who should go and who should stay.

The new wind damage data, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said, doesn’t change the basic message – run from the water, hide from the wind.

I’m pretty sure Judge Emmett meant to say “hunker down” from the wind. He must have been misquoted. Be that as it may, I’m not really sure how much value this has. I mean, I agree it’s better to know what you might be up against than to be ignorant about it, but what’s missing from this story is what if anything we plan to do about this. That’s a non-trivial question because anything we did do now, such as raise building code standards for unincorporated Harris County, would not affect any current structure. Individual property owners are of course free to take whatever action they think is worthwhile, but I have my doubts that a report like this will do much to spur anyone to action. It’s a matter of risk assessment: Clearly, massive hurricanes are (thankfully) very rare events for Houston, so any investment made to fortify oneself against them may well be wasted. Against that, the failure to be adequately prepared if one does come our way will have devastating consequences. Pick your poison, I guess.

The Ike Floodgate

We have a recommendation for how to prepare for a future Hurricane Ike.

A giant floodgate at the entrance to the Houston Ship Channel, coupled with a 130-mile wetlands recreation area, should be built to protect Houston from hurricane storm surges, a research team from five Texas universities recommended Monday.

The two-year study led by the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, or SSPEED, at Rice University also recommends a 20-mile levee along Texas 146 and another to protect the bay side on the eastern end of Galveston, already protected on the Gulf side by a sea wall.

The proposals are on a much smaller scale than the Ike Dike concept, which envisions a storm gate between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula coupled with a massive levee protecting both barrier islands.

“We have looked very carefully at the Ike Dike proposals,” said Philip Bedient, a professor of engineering at Rice University. “We at the SSPEED Center don’t think it has a chance of getting built in our lifetime.

“We’ve gone with four proposals that we think have a better chance of being funded and built in a much shorter period of time.”

Jim Blackburn, environmental law professor at Rice University, said each proposal can be undertaken separately.

The full report is here, and you can see some background on this here and here. The real question is not whether this is the best or the most cost-effective solution. The question is whether this or any solution can be funded by our dysfunctional Legislature and Congress. If we believe those who claim there isn’t the money to build some mitigation now, what will we believe when we need to rebuild everything after a catastrophic storm? Swamplot has more.