Advocates for the construction of a coastal barrier system say they don’t believe Hurricane Harvey’s flooding rains will dampen support for measures that are meant to protect from other types of hurricane damage.
“I think it will be helpful,” said Galveston County Judge Mark Henry on Tuesday. “This is a federal project, and now we’re going to look at 13 or 14 congressional members that have been impacted directly by a hurricane in the last 30 days.”
Henry said that Hurricane Irma, which struck Florida last week, was a better example of the type of threat the barrier is supposed to protect against — storm surge pushed onto land by hurricane-force winds.
“Harvey did bring a storm surge down in the Rockport area, but nothing like Irma,” Henry said.
Irma can be added to a list of examples that could have been started exactly nine years ago about the threat of surge.
Today is the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Ike. That storm, the last hurricane to make landfall on the Texas coast before Hurricane Harvey, caused a 14-foot storm surge that inundated Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.
Ike caused an estimated $29 billion in damage.
Harvey did not bring the same type of storm surge. Its floods were mostly attributed to the more than 40 inches of rain that fell on parts of the Houston and Galveston area over five days. Harvey’s damage was more widespread than Ike’s. Early estimates put the total cost of the storm at $180 billion.
In the years since Ike, local groups have advocated for the construction of a coastal barrier system — popularly known as the Ike Dike — that would potentially stop the type of storm surge that Hurricane Ike caused. The proposal imagines a 30-mile long barrier stretching the length of Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula with a gate system at the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel.
The project is buoyed by dire projections of what a large storm could do if it took a slightly different track than Ike. A hurricane that makes landfall slightly more northward than Ike could push storm surge into the Houston Ship Channel, quickly devastating major petrochemical plants, as well as residential areas.
Bob Mitchell, the president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, said a barrier wouldn’t have protected against Harvey’s historic rains.
“This is a once in a 1,000-year event,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t matter what you do, you’re not going to be able to completely protect yourself from the amount of water that was dumped on this region in three days.”
What a gate and barrier system could have done, is hold back some of the high tides that exacerbated flooding by preventing drainage in some places, Mitchell said.
The idea of a barrier has slowly gained popularity beyond the Galveston Bay area over the past nine years. In April, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush asked President Donald Trump to commit $15 billion to the coastal spine proposal as part of the White House’s plan for national infrastructure improvements.
Although that letter was sent in April, the White House has not yet revealed its infrastructure plans.
U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, a Friendswood Republican, said more of his colleagues have talked to him about the coastal barrier proposal since he returned to Washington last week. He said Harvey, and some of the gas shortage panic that followed it, could wake people up about protecting the Texas coast’s industrial areas.
“I believe people will see that now,” Weber said. “As fuel prices began to rise and as fuel shortages were possible, you saw people going out and buying fuel.
“The area of energy production in Southeast Texas is one of the most stable economic drivers for the American economy and produces a goodly amount of the fuel. People will notice it.”
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn also helped push the idea before Harvey, writing legislation that could speed approvals for the projects if it becomes reality.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday reiterated his support for the project during an event at Houston’s City Hall debuting a video meant to create support for the barrier system.
Called ”Unprepared: A Nation at Risk,” the video imagines gas shortages and a national state of emergency in the aftermath of a major storm hitting the ship channel.
“I don’t think there’s a better time to have this conversation than right now,” Turner said. “As we work diligently to get back on track after the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey, we are also keeping our eyes on the vital needs for storm surge protection in our region.”