HOUSTON - Fourteen years after Hurricane Ike ripped through thousands of homes and businesses near Galveston, Texas — but mostly spared the region’s oil refineries and chemical plants — the U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to authorize the most expensive project ever recommended by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect against the next raging storm.
Ike erased beachfront neighborhoods, causing $30 billion in damage. But with so much of the nation’s petrochemical industry in the Houston-Galveston corridor, it could have been even worse. That close call inspired marine science professor Bill Merrell to first propose a massive coastal barrier to protect against a direct hit.
Now, the National Defense Authorization Act includes authorizations for a $34 billion plan that borrows from Merrell’s idea.
"It was quite different than anything we had done in the United States and it took us a little while to come around to it," said Merrell of Texas A&M University at Galveston.
The House passed the $858 billion defense bill by a vote of 350-80. It includes major projects to improve the nation’s waterways and protect communities against floods made more severe by climate change.
A restaurant stands under water after flooding caused by hurricane Ike. (Photo by Ann Johansson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Specifically, the vote advances the Water Resources Development Act of 2022. That lays out a sprawling set of policies for the Army Corps and authorizes projects that touch on navigation, improving the environment and protecting against storms. It typically passes every two years. It received strong, bipartisan support and now advances to the Senate.
The Texas coastal protection project far outstrips any of the 24 other projects greenlit by the bill. There is a $6.3 billion plan to deepen vital shipping channels near New York City and a $1.2 billion effort to raise homes and businesses on the central Louisiana coast.
"No matter what side of politics you are on, everyone is interested in having good water resources," said Sandra Knight, president of WaterWonks LLC.
THE IKE DIKE
Researchers at Rice University in Houston have estimated that a Category 4 storm with a 24-foot storm surge could damage storage tanks and release more than 90 million gallons of oil and hazardous substances.
The most prominent feature of the coastal barrier would be floodgates, including some 650 feet wide – roughly the equivalent of a 60-story building on its side – to prevent storm surge from entering Galveston Bay and plowing up the Houston Ship Channel. An 18-mile ring barrier system would also be built along the backside of Galveston Island to protect homes and businesses from storm surge. The plan took six years of study involving roughly 200 people.
There will also be beach and dune ecosystem restoration projects along the Texas coast. The Houston Audubon Society raised concerns the project would destroy some bird habitat and harm fish, shrimp and crabs populations in the Bay.
The legislation authorizes the construction of the project, but funding will remain a challenge — money must still be allocated. The huge cost burden falls heaviest on the federal government, but local and state entities also will have to pitch in billions. Construction could take two decades.
"It significantly reduces the risk of that catastrophic storm surge event that is not recoverable," said Mike Braden, chief of the Army Corps Galveston District’s mega projects division.
The bill also includes a range of policy measures. When future hurricanes hit for example, coastal protections can be rebuilt with climate change in mind. Designers will be able to think about how much seas will rise when they draw up plans.
"The future for a lot of these communities is not going to look like the past," said Jimmy Hague, senior water policy advisor at the Nature Conservancy.
The water resources bill continues a push towards wetlands and other flood solutions that use nature to absorb water instead of concrete walls to keep it at bay. On the Mississippi River below St. Louis, for example, a new program will help restore ecosystems and create a mix of flood control projects. There are also provisions for studying long-term drought.
There are measures to improve outreach with tribes and make it easier to complete work in poorer, historically disadvantaged communities.
It can take a long time to study projects, move them through Congress and find funding. Merrell, who will turn 80 in February, said he hopes to see some of the Texas project be constructed but he doesn’t think he’ll be around to see it finished.
"I just hope the end product comes and it protects my children and grandchildren and all the other citizens of this area," Merrell said.
Phillis reported from St. Louis.