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William Merrell

Ike Dike gets a study

The “Ike Dike”, a network of dikes and gates off the coast of Galveston that was first proposed last year by William Merrell as protection against storm surges from future hurricanes, is being discussed more seriously by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District.

Although the Ike Dike may not be the final solution — environmentalists have raised concerns about the effect of gating off Galveston Bay and the project’s potential to spur development in sensitive areas — Merrell is happy there will be a comprehensive study of the issue.

“It will get a fair shake,” Merrell said of the Ike Dike.

“During this process everyone gets a chance to get their two cents in. My goal was to make sure this got on the table and that it got a fair hearing. Now that’s happening and I couldn’t be more pleased.”

A new report released last week by Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center bolsters the case for doing something to mitigate storm surge, said Phil Bedient, the center’s director, who co-authored the report with environmental attorney Jim Blackburn.

“It’s pretty clear that we now really need to have a serious discussion about how to defend and mitigate against surge as best we can. You can’t completely protect an area, but you can reduce the risk,” Bedient said.

The report reinforces the notion that Ike could have been worse. Had it struck 30 miles down the Texas coast, for example, the surge at the Port of Houston would have been 19 feet, instead of just over 13.

It’s scary to think that Ike could have been a lot worse, isn’t it? Blackburn was one of the ones raising environmental concerns about the dike approach, so alternatives will get a fair hearing as well. The website for the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED) is here. You can read their full report here, an overview of some of its findings here, and a brief status report here. To me, the key bit is this from that last link:

Dr. Merrill has estimated the Galveston portion of the Ike Dike to cost roughly $3 billion, or only 5-6 cents of property tax for residents in the affected counties over the next 30 years. Wayne Klotz, president of the Houston engineering firm Klotz Associates Inc., believes the estimate is higher at around $7 billion to $10 billion. Whatever the final cost may be, advocates believe there is a high benefit to cost ratio for such a project when financial consideration is given for the structure’s potentional to prevent future damage.

Even at the high end, $10 billion is a relatively small amount, which would be amortized over decades and which would have long-lasting benefits. Cost is always a consideration, but if that’s the most expensive scenario, it shouldn’t be an obstacle.

Ike Dike update

As the first Atlantic tropical storms of the year make their appearance, we get an update on the proposed Ike Dike.

One of Hurricane Ike’s legacies may be the hardening of the upper Texas coast against hurricane storm surges.

Within weeks, a post-Ike committee appointed by Gov. Rick Perry will recommend that six Texas counties band together to form a storm surge suppression zone.

In effect, this would empower the counties — Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, Orange, Chambers and Jefferson — to seek state and federal funding and identify the best system of dikes, gates and seawalls to protect coastal communities — including the city of Houston and its Ship Channel industries — from devastating surges.

“We would like the counties to work together to study the potential of protective measures, whether it’s a levee system, a dike, an offshore barrier or something else,” said former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who chaired the Ike committee.

Ultimately, such a project is likely to cost billions, with funds coming primarily from the federal government.

Oh, that evil, evil federal government and its dirty, dirty money! Always doing things for us that we’re unable to do for ourselves. Why must we suffer under the burden of their yoke?

The recommendation will come amid a growing discussion in the area on whether Ike’s primary lesson should be to harden the Texas coast against storm surges, or to pull back from development in threatened areas such as Bolivar Peninsula.

The committee appears to back the “Ike Dike” approach advocated by oceanographer William Merrell of Texas A&M University at Galveston.

[…]

“We viewed the Ike Dike as an interesting idea, but not necessarily the solution,” Eckels said. “It’s a good starting point.”

He said area county judges are receptive to studying the idea further. But some, including Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, are skeptical.

“It’s an expensive proposition for a potential protection from one hurricane factor — storm surge — while doing nothing to protect us from wind, which was obviously a great problem here in Harris County,” said Emmett’s spokesman, Joe Stinebaker.

Additionally, many environmentalists and scientists believe more coastal development — which a dike could encourage — is not the best public policy.

In June the Houston Endowment gave $1.25 million to Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters center, in part to study coastal development and storm surges.

The money will allow environmental attorney and coastal expert Jim Blackburn and others to explore alternative visions to simply hardening the coast as part of a report due in two years.

Blackburn says dike alternatives include turning much of Bolivar Peninsula into a national seashore and expanding wildlife refuges in Chambers and Jefferson counties.

“Perhaps the coast should just be a place to visit,” Blackburn suggested. “Everyone who goes there wants to move in. I understand that, but maybe unfettered development right on the beach is not the best public policy.”

I have a lot of sympathy for that position. I also have a lot of doubt that the political support to go that route. Is there a viable non-dike solution if you assume that the current level of development will remain as is? I could maybe see that happening. Alternately, I could see putting some restrictions on new development, which maybe you could get through as an accompaniment to an Ike Dike. I’ll be very interested to see what their proposed alternatives are, but I have my doubts as to their prospects.

The Ike Dike

This certainly sounds like a promising idea.

Protecting the region from a hurricane’s storm surge, says William Merrell of Texas A&M University at Galveston, is simple: Extend Galveston’s seawall to the island’s West End, build a similar structure along Bolivar Peninsula and construct massive Dutch-like floodgates at the entry to Galveston Bay.

Merrell’s “Ike Dike” idea, which would cost at least $2 billion not including land acquisition expenses, has gained momentum in recent weeks.

Gov. Rick Perry’s post-Ike Commission for Disaster Recovery and Renewal reviewed the concept and unanimously recommended that the state fund a feasibility study to look at flood control efforts along the entire Texas coast.

“When I first heard about it, I thought it was a pretty outlandish project, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think we need to look into something like this,” said Bill King, a former mayor of Kemah who is a member of the Ike commission.

“The benefits are obvious. To protect the entire Gulf Coast from a storm surge would be an incredible benefit.”

[…]

The upfront cost may seem high, but storm surge damages caused by Ike along the upper Texas coast may have exceeded $10 billion, and that was for a hurricane that came in too far north to cause maximum damage to Galveston Island and heavily populated communities along western Galveston Bay.

Compared to the cost of an actual hurricane, as we have so clearly seen, this is downright cheap. Even if the $2 billion estimate is off by a factor of ten, this would be a worthwhile investment. A feasibility study would be a few million bucks, and that’s a no-brainer. The only question there is what needs to be done to appropriate the money.

Environmentalists familiar with the dike proposal say the large retractable gates it would require on Galveston Bay, as well as smaller ones at San Luis Pass and the Intracoastal Waterway, would inhibit fish migration and raise a host of other potential environmental impacts.

But perhaps even more significantly, said Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney and coastal expert based in Houston, the dike proposal would give carte blanche to developers and businesses to continue building in sensitive areas around Galveston Bay. “I don’t personally think this is the solution to this area’s incredible vulnerability to hurricanes,” Blackburn said.

“But there’s a challenge to the environmental community, which may not want to see an Ike Dike, to come up with an alternative that addresses the problem.”

Well, yeah. I appreciate the concern, but the potential benefit is very high, and I don’t see the worries about developers carrying much weight as a counter-argument. The best bet at this point will be to make sure that future feasibility study takes these kind of costs and their mitigation into effect. More at SciGuy.

On a related note, one preseason hurricane forecast for 2009 has been ticked down a notch, from a guess of 14 named storms to 12. The quieter this season is, and the farther removed we get from Ike, the more complacent we’re likely to get. If there’s something that should be done, the sooner we do it, the better.