Hurricane Harvey has battered Houston for days, and the ultimate toll it will take on the region is still unknown. But it’s already raising questions about what could have been done to better protect the city. Storms as strong as Harvey cause unavoidable damage, but the right landscape design and infrastructural interventions could reduce the destruction–if lawmakers, engineers, and scientists could agree on what to do.
One long-languishing project is the “Ike Dike,” which was proposed after Hurricane Ike in 2008. Still just a concept nearly a decade after Houston’s last major flood, the megaproject’s saga underlines why flood infrastructure is increasingly critical–and noticeably absent in many vulnerable areas, as experts and lawmakers debate the science and design that underpins it.
Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005 and caused an estimated $108 billion in damage, and Superstorm Sandy, which struck New York and New Jersey in 2012 and caused an estimated $75 billion in damage, were both accompanied by storm surges in addition to rain and high wind. So was Hurricane Ike, which inundated Houston and inspired the Ike Dike in 2008.
Harvey, on the other hand, did not generate a large storm surge when it reached Houston; the flooding was the result of heavy rain (though coastal towns nearby did experience surges). But if the storm had been accompanied by a storm surge in Houston, the effects would have been even more destructive and catastrophic. Refineries around Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel process 40% of the United States’ petroleum and half of its jet fuel. The flood waters could cause millions of gallons of spilled oil and chemicals.
When Hurricane Ike reached the Houston-Galveston area in 2008, it pushed a 19-foot storm surge into the Galveston Bay, causing $29 billion in damage and over 500,000 gallons of spilled crude oil.
Ike got Texas A&M professor Bill Merrell, who is based at the university’s Galveston campus, thinking about what could be done to protect the region in the future. Inspired by the Dutch, who famously built a network of coastal sea walls, levees, and dikes after a 1953 flood killed over 1,800 people, Merrell proposed the Coastal Spine, aka the Ike Dike: a coastal barrier to keep water from entering the bay.
Merrell’s barrier, first proposed in 2009, is actually a system of flood-mitigating technologies. It would mean constructing 55 miles of sand dune barriers along the Galveston and Bolivar Peninsulas, some natural and some with concrete reinforcements beneath them. It would also include 17-foot-tall sea walls, and retractable 800-foot-wide gates at the shipping channel’s mouth–inspired by Rotterdam’s own sea gate, which was built in the 1990s to stave off storm surges from the North Sea.
Houston isn’t the only city importing Dutch strategies to mitigate flooding. New York City is planning its own storm surge barrier, or “Dry Line,” also known as the Big U. The network of berms, disguised as parks, will stretch around 10 miles of Manhattan’s coastline and raise the elevation of land along the waterfront, absorbing the impact of storm surges and providing much-needed public space, which makes it all the more enticing for politicians. (The Ike Dike will supposedly include bike paths and walking trails, but the plan doesn’t involve a strong community component.)
Yet even in the Netherlands, which is ahead of the curve with regard to water infrastructure and flood mitigation, strategies are shifting. Increasingly, the country has moved to “make room for the river,” or find ways to coexist with more water rather than block it out completely. After all, over the coming decades sea level rise could render today’s most fail-safe infrastructure useless.
Meanwhile, some environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, oppose the Ike Dike entirely. It argues that the spine won’t offer enough protection, and that it could degrade Galveston Bay and the coastal habitat. Instead, it’s calling for full withdrawal from areas threatened by storm surges. But for Merrell, the proposal is the only sensible way forward for a region at risk. “This is preventive medicine,” he told the Texas A&M Foundation’s online magazine. “The concept is easy. You stop the storm surge at the coast so that you protect everyone.”
The debate over the environmental impact and design of the Ike Dike have been overshadowed by the one surrounding its cost–now an estimated $15 billion, up from $6 billion to $10 billion when first proposed–and who should shoulder it.
The Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, a commission Texas Governor Rick Perry established in 2013, conducted a study on how the state could guard against storm surges and officially endorsed the Ike Dike concept in 2016. Yet shoring up funding for the project has been difficult. Some argue that private industry should pay for the protections around their own sites rather than asking tax payers to foot the bill. The Army Corps of Engineers is working on a study about storm-surge protections for the entire Gulf Coast and before it reaches its conclusions and makes recommendations, federal funding likely won’t be allocated. Texas officials have been lobbying the Trump administration to fund the Ike Dike as part of its supposed $1 trillion infrastructure plan. While it’s on the White House’s list of national projects to consider, there’s been little activity at the federal level.
So, almost 10 years after Hurricane Ike, Texas hasn’t moved to build the megaproject that some say could save the region’s population, and one of its economic engines, from disaster. It’s a saga that speaks to the complexity of infrastructure construction in the United States, and its urgency now that climate change is knocking at the door. Will the region take more aggressive stance on flood mitigation, now that two “once in a lifetime” storms have struck within nine years of one another? Time will tell.