Opposition to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ preferred plan for a storm-surge barrier along this part of the Texas Coast is large and diverse.
In fact, one of the most remarkable things about this remarkable civil engineering effort is the unlikely coalition of opposition it has inspired.
Nobody, except the corps itself, perhaps, wants anything to do with some part or another of the proposed barrier.
Those opposed include passionate environmentalists; people equally passionate about property values; government officials; storm-barrier researchers at Rice and Texas A&M universities; cities and chambers of commerce; people worried about the sociological ramifications of dividing communities; and people worried about being trapped in a bowl on Galveston Island and drowned, as were people in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
Several questions arise. One is whether the corps could lop off the unpalatable parts of the plan — the ring levee around parts of Galveston, for example — and still have a barrier system technically sound enough to justify spending billions of public dollars.
Another is whether changing the barrier’s alignment from roughly the rights of way along state Highway 87 on Bolivar Peninsula and FM 3005 on Galveston Island to instead follow the public easement along Gulf-side beaches could be financially justified.
The most urgent question, however, is whether we wouldn’t all be better off passing on the whole idea and dealing with future hurricanes the way we’ve dealt with those of the past.
In other words, is the do-nothing option the best option? Some people in Galveston and on the peninsula have already concluded that doing nothing would be preferable to doing what the corps plan proposes.
Dr. William Merrell worries the do-nothing option has become attractive and argues there is a cost-effective way to protect communities in this region of the coast from surge such as happened during Hurricane Ike without the objectionable parts and for far less than the $32 billion the corps estimates its method would cost.
Merrell’s name will be familiar to anyone who has followed development of the coastal barrier. His titles are president emeritus, regents professor and Mitchell Chair at the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University at Galveston, but many locals know him as the father of the Ike Dike concept.
Merrell also opposes the corps’ preferred plan for the barrier and argues a better barrier system could be built for perhaps a third of the cost.
It’s a safe bet that no one has thought or put more study into the idea of a coastal barrier since Hurricane Ike than Bill Merrell. The first reference to an Ike Dike appeared in a January 2009 Daily News article in which Merrell explained his initial vision for such a barrier.
The Daily News first met Merrell before that, however. In 2008, just a few days after Ike’s flood water had receded enough to be out and about, two Daily News editors interviewed him as he and grandson mucked out a building on The Strand. We suspect Merrell was even then thinking about a barrier to keep storm surge at bay.
Because of his long-running, deeply personal and academic experience in the subject, The Daily News has agreed to publish five free-access columns in which Merrell will make his case for a better, cheaper coastal barrier. The first was published Dec. 12. The second appears on this page today and the rest will appear Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
The editors invite comment in letters to the editor of about 200 words and rebuttals from the corps and other organizations in the form of columns of about 500 words.
• Michael A. Smith