Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Marine life more important than human life, sand dunes more important than homes and petrochemical complex

On September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike struck the Texas coast a few miles east of Galveston as a Category 2 hurricane. It was the second-costliest hurricane ever to make landfall in the United States, with damages in U.S. coastal and inland areas estimated at $29.6 billion. Ike killed 112 people and 23 are still missing and presumed dead.

Had Ike made landfall just a few miles west, Galveston and Houston would have been on the dirty side of the hurricane. That would have been catastrophic. It would have inundated vast populated and industrial areas of land, including the huge petrochemical industries along the Houston ship channel. Thousands of people would have been killed and the cost would have made $29.6 billion look like chicken feed.

In order to prevent such a catastrophe, Texas A&M professor Bill Merrell proposed extending the Galveston seawall in both directions and constructing floodgates similar to those in the Netherlands to protect more of Galveston, the Bolivar Peninsula, the Galveston Bay Area, and Houston. The Ike Dike was projected to cost $4 billion when it was first proposed in 2009. (Some estimates now have it as high as $11 billion, but that is still a drop in the bucket compared to the losses that would be incurred if a hurricane struck Galveston-Houston on its dirty side.)

The environmentalists immediately attacked Dr. Merrell’s proposal, charging that the dikes would destroy the existing environment and that the floodgates would prevent marine life from migrating back and forth from the Gulf into the bay. They suggested letting sand dunes act as natural barriers to any tidal storm surges. By all means, protect the ecosystem, but the people, their properties and the petrochemical plants be damned!

The econuts excoriated developers and homeowners for building beach front homes, condos and hotels even though most of the properties that will be destroyed by a storm surge are miles from any beach. They can condemn the beachfront developers and property owners till the cow jumps over the moon, but the fact is the people and properties are there now and need to be protected.

The environmentalists were joined by others in saying that we could not afford the cost of constructing the Ike Dike. It should be noted that so far it has cost $14.5 billion to upgrade New Orleans’ flood control system and that upgrade may actually have helped to flood the city’s surrounding communities.

In Sunday’s Houston Chronicle, Dr. Merrell had an op-ed pitching the Ike Dam once again. Here is that op-ed:

By William Merrell

Houston Chronicle
September 9, 2012

Last March, I toured the Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System - the surge barrier that recently served that region so well during Hurricane Isaac. And did it ever perform. The same region that had the largest evacuation in United States history during Hurricane Gustav in 2008 was able to hunker down during Isaac and recover rapidly.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers and the engineering companies that helped design and build the system should be proud. Everything about the 133-mile perimeter of levees, flood walls and gated barriers is impressive. The total cost of the system so far is $14.5 billion, but probably the most amazing fact is that construction was started in 2008 and achieved 100-year surge event protection in June 2011. Given political will, the United States can move quickly.

The New Orleans barrier strategy is to keep massive surges from entering the interior of the system by shortening the outer protection and making it strong. The shortened defense is enabled largely by using gated passages. This is a similar strategy used by the Dutch after the disaster of 1953 when they shortened the coast by building their Deltaworks. The Dutch first used solid barriers and then astounded the world by using flood gates that assured passage of large vessels as well as allowing for flows into salt water estuaries.

The similar strategies are not an accident. Early in its recovery planning, the New Orleans region engaged in a critical series of workshops simply called the Dutch Dialogues. These rich discussions and interactions have been captured in book form: "Dutch Dialogues - New Orleans, Netherlands - Common Challenges in Urbanized Deltas." Such interactions would be very valuable here and now as we plan surge defenses for the upper Texas Coast, and we at Texas A&M University at Galveston plan to facilitate those dialogues.

Although the overall strategies of using gates to shorten the perimeter being defended and keeping surge out of internal waters are the same for the Dutch Deltaworks and the New Orleans barrier, a major difference in the defenses is that the Dutch are able to protect the coast with a coastal spine, while New Orleans, being far from the coast, is forced to employ a ring defense that surrounds the city. But unlike the coastal spine, the ring defense leaves surrounding communities not only exposed but subject to more damage as surge waters pile up against the barrier.

During my March visit to New Orleans, I remember very well standing on the barrier and looking down on Plaquemines Parish on the other side. Besides the impressive technology of a highway gate and a sector gate blocking a channel from the Mississippi, there is a single lane road that snakes over the barrier. When I asked about it, the engineer giving the tour said it was specifically for anyone on the outside wanting to get behind the barrier at the last minute after the highway gate was closed.

We agreed that it is not a good thing to be between the water and the wall.

We are fortunate in the Galveston Bay region in that, like the Dutch and unlike New Orleans, we are able to have the surge barrier between all of us in the region and the water. Our geography, with long land barriers, Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula, and only two major passages into Galveston Bay, is perfect for the coastal spine approach, such as the Ike Dike and, because it occupies the minimum footprint for comprehensive protection, the Ike Dike would cost much less than the New Orleans barrier system, but will provide protection for all communities and people, rich or poor.

The Ike Dike is not only economically sound, but also socially just.

Our first and foremost goal should be to have no one who works or lives around Galveston Bay experience the dilemma of being between a surge barrier and rising water. We can do it. We should do it. Let's get on with it.

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