Shortly after the Hurricane Ike struck in 2008, Galveston formed a citizens committee to make recommendations on recovery.
One of the subcommittees recommended that the city ask for funds to study ways of protecting Galveston from future storms.
The city got a federal grant that included $500,000 for a study. But the money was swallowed up as the city rebuilt its sewer system.
There was talk at the time about the urgency to start building things, rather than studying things.
The Beaumont and Freeport areas qualified for similar grants. Those communities completed studies that have been submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The corps is using those studies to evaluate options for protecting those communities from the kind of storm surge seen during Ike.
In Galveston, the idea is dawning that the study that was brushed aside might have been important.
People in Galveston — and around Galveston Bay — are discussing what type of protection would work best. Community leaders early backed the “Coastal Barrier Concept,” popularly known as the Ike Dike. That’s a barrier, such as a levee, that runs from San Luis Pass to High Island with floodgates across Bolivar Roads. The idea is to protect the whole bay.
The outline of that plan was in a study done by the Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Carla in 1961. That original plan was ambitious. It extended to Freeport and included some supplemental barriers to prevent flooding from the bay.
It took awhile for the corps to complete the plan, which included other options, such as ring levees.
Some communities acted on the recommendations. Texas City, for example, has a levee system that protected its people and its industrial base during Ike. In Galveston, there was concern that a levee would hamper development on the West End.
The idea of the barrier protecting the entire bay didn’t get past the analysis of costs and benefits.
When federal and local officials discussed the options, the cost-benefits analysis came up. It’s why systems to protect petrochemical plants in Texas City were built.
The idea that the federal government would fund huge public works projects to protect future residential development didn’t fly.
Today, the message from federal officials about spending billions to protect undeveloped land has not changed. And so some scientists have been studying a “zone specific approach.”
Instead of building one big barrier to protect the whole bay, they are looking at 14 areas from Freeport to the Jefferson County bottomlands near Beaumont. The idea is that the key areas — ports, refineries and existing communities, for example — could be protected at a fraction of the cost. Some areas, like the marshlands of Chambers County, might need little protection.
From the perspective of those who favor a barrier protecting the whole bay, the danger is the erosion to the benefits side of cost-benefits ledger.
If a relatively cheap project could protect the petrochemical complexes in the upper Houston Ship Channel, for example, that would make the case for an Ike Dike weaker.
To the extent that there is an argument about what to do to protect the area from a bad storm, that’s what it’s about.
Two suggestions for going forward:
First, we ought to openly explore all the options, not just Plan A, but Plans B and C.
Second, we ought to learn from the consequences of decisions made in the past. That uncomfortable exercise might help us make better ones in the future.