People living along the Gulf Coast stay on edge this time of year: It’s hurricane season – a time of watching to see if tropical waves will become destructive storms as they move toward the warm waters of the Gulf Coast. This area has been ravaged by hurricanes – Hurricanes Andrew, Katrina and Ike have been the three most costly disasters in U.S. history. Ike cost $30 billion and brought devastation to Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula in 2008. The hurricane resulted in the largest evacuation in the history for Texas.
It could have been much worse if Hurricane Ike had made landfall just 40 miles down the coast as predicted, according to Jim Blackburn, faculty associate at Rice University with the SSPEED Center studying lessons learned from Hurricane Ike. “All of us have been sobered by the potential of damage,” Blackburn says. “It could be much worse than we have seen to date with the storms experts say we can reasonably foresee.”
From his work with the ongoing study of coastal vulnerability with the Severe Storm Prediction Education, and Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center, Blackburn points out that:
Potential for damage in the Galveston Bay system is extremely high. Hurricane Ike was only a category 2 storm. “If it had been 30 percent stronger , the surge would have been incredible on Galveston Bay.”
Potential for loss of life and property damage for the three counties that surround the bay is huge. About a million people live in this area. The population is expected to grow to more than1.5 million. Blackburn says, “They can’t evacuate 1.5 million people.”
The Houston Ship Channel is the center for refineries and petrochemical plants in the United States producing dangerous chemicals and storing crude oil. A 25-foot surge in the Houston Ship Channel would cause significant environmental problems for all of Houston and the region as well as economic loss that would affect the whole country.
To improve resilience of the Texas Gulf Coast, SSPEED is looking at a combination of structural and non-structural rfor protection of the Gulf Coast from storm surges and flooding.
Structural solutions include a levee at the bridge on Highway 146 that crosses the Houston Ship Channel where the channel empties into the bay. The elevation of land at the point is 25 feet. A 25 ft levee system with flood gates could be built at this location to prevent a storm surge from coming up the channel.
Non-structural solutions would involve protecting wetlands from development and preserving them to provide flood control as well as recreation areas for birdwatching and kayaking. The low-lying areas of Galveston Bay, Bolivar Peninsula and the upper Texas coast could become part of the national park system.
Blackburn says as the SSPEED study continues, the faculty is identifying problems and working backwards to find solutions that make sense. Various entities will be encouraged to share resources in this time of tighter budgets and limited money.