How to Combat Hurricane Damage and Sea-Level Rise? Lessons From the Texas Gulf Coast

Water flows past debris from a destroyed home Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Mantoloking N.J. Hurricane Sandy caused the ocean
Water flows past debris from a destroyed home Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in Mantoloking N.J. Hurricane Sandy caused the ocean to cut a channel through to the bay, shown flowing here, which effectively cut the borough in two. Most of the multimillion-dollar homes along this old-money stretch of the Jersey shore were seriously damaged by pounding surf, wild wind and, in some cases, fire from ruptured gas lines. Numerous homes were destroyed, and some were obliterated, leaving behind just empty sand or maybe a few broken pilings jutting up out of the surf. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

Current natural disaster thinking relative to Galveston Bay -- the huge inland waterway around which the Houston megalopolis and Texas coastal cities have developed -- relies on antiquated storm protection techniques and land development practices doomed to repeated failures. In 2008, Hurricane Ike reawakened the region's sensibilities towards creating a more robust coastline, but its lessons are soon forgotten without proactive planning by local, state, and federal leadership. Ike caused $24 billion in estimated damages to the Galveston Bay area and was third costliest hurricane in the history of the United States behind Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina. Ike-related evacuation totals were the largest in the history of Texas and associated search and rescue operations are the largest in U.S. history. According to FEMA, some 8,000 homes were destroyed and the agency provided housing assistance to 109,045 eligible applicants, as of Dec. 2008. The US NOAA reported 103 deaths across Hispianola, Cuba and the Texas Gulf Coast.

Whether a hurricane in Texas or another coastal city that is vulnerable to massive storms, what's needed to prevent such massive yet oft-repeated cataclysms are policy shifts rooted in natural-system approaches that work with nature's tremendous forces. Understanding the basis of natural systems and weather events leads planners to rethink the tradition of 'build a dam, build a dike, build a channel,' and instead to undertake approaches for both structural, engineered components as well as non-structural, natural-systems components.

Solutions to Fortify and Retreat

Not unlike basic battle strategy, solutions should center on tenets of fortifying the high ground, retreating from the low.

The two-pronged approach is:

(1) Create hardened protection zones around existing cities including multi-function levees that could be topped by roads, rails, high-line parks, and might include larger water-resistant structures; one idea deemed too costly was to building a huge movable ship-gate on Galveston Bay that would close during a storm;

(2) retreat from low-density areas to evolve them into wetlands, parks and habitat that provide recreation amenities.

SWA Group and dozens of other organizations, policy leaders and specialists have been meeting under an umbrella organization called Coastal Resilience, under auspices of Rice University, Texas A&M, LSU, University of Houston and the University of Texas at Austin. This group also has ties to the Rice-sponsored Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Natural Disasters (SSPEED) Center that has been researching the issue for years.

Structural/Non-structural Strategies to Save Billions

Coastal Resilience has begun formulating a number of recommendations.

In 2010, former Secretary of State James Baker and Houstonian John L. Nau were announced as co-chairs of an effort to implement a key proposal: Formation of a four-county, 130-mile swath of land for a coastal recreation area that would create a buffer zone of largely undeveloped land to absorb a storm's assault, while the rest of the time it would serve as a recreation and park area for public and tourism uses.

In SWA's work with the University of Houston, the Coastal Resilience group made key recommendations for consideration by local, regional and Federal jurisdictions.

I. Structural. Hard-structure strategies should be reserved for critical population and industrial areas, such as:

-- Create select structural solutions -- dams, levees, etc. -- in areas of high economic/historic value, refugees of last resort, and where most cost efficient. Those include the urban core of the City of Galveston; Bolivar Port; East Bay Coastline within Highway 146 right of way; and other important urban areas.

-- These areas should also be strategically connect to a 25-foot contour and in tandem with natural landforms and existing levees to buffer storm surge where appropriate.

-- Lastly, a storm-surge gate, dubbed Hartman gate, should be built that would close in advance of storms to protect the Houston Ship Channel.

II. Non-structural. Implement non-structural solutions that would include:

-- Improve and enforce building and development codes

-- Reinforce and harden public infrastructure

-- Remove wind and flood insurance subsidies in unprotected areas

-- Buyout storm damaged properties after one additional flood

-- Full disclosure on all future property purchases

-- Post flood-depth signage in unprotected areas

-- Improve communication and education tools

-- Implement alternative land uses that minimize the amount of man-made structure that would be repaired/replaced/lost to a storm while also creating a buffer to absorb storm impact. For example, a National Seashore designation equal to or less than 5-foot storm level, agricultural zones between elevation 5 and 25; and potential carbon sequestration sites.

The pros and cons of such recommendations are already researched, and must be further explored in the public debate of how to prepare for the inevitability of major catastrophic storms.

On the proponent side of the recommendations:

-- Allows barrier island migration

-- Maintains and potentially enhances ecological systems

-- Post-storm water subsidence occurs relatively quickly

-- Minimizes future at risk development while encouraging food production

-- Small construction scope is land based and uses existing topography to reduce costs

-- Allows some flexibility for sea level rise

On the opposition side of the recommendations:

-- Limits economic development opportunities in traditional high value

development areas

-- Existing homeowners outside protected zone left at risk

-- Improvements to infrastructure limited by low tax base

-- Large land area dedicated to National Seashore potentially economically unsustainable

-- Significant political hurdles and timeframes would be encountered leaving the region susceptible to storms and decreased project interest

Islands Migrate, Coastal Populations Grow, Storms and Sea Rise Loom

As a backdrop to the recommendations, it's important to note the existing approaches to coastal resilience, and some facts about the risks to people, economic infrastructure and habitat.

• History proves major storm events and associated storm surges are inevitable; Hurricane Ike, similar to Katrina and other major events for other regions, has given Southeast Texas a stark reminder that a perfectly-aligned hurricane could crush the region, if for example Ike has made landfall just a few miles further south.

• Barrier island migration is a natural process that is being fought by hardening shoreline edges and allowing beaches to quickly erode and natural cycles to rapidly decay.

• The magnitude of climate change is still being debated, but the harmful effects of large storms are certain to be magnified by rising sea levels regardless of final rise in height.

• Galveston Bay is approximately 600-square miles in area and creates a funneling storm surge effect impacting economic, industrial, commercial, residential, and environmental interests beyond immediate barrier island shorelines including the Houston Ship Channel, City of Houston, and surrounding east and west bayside communities.

• An elevation of 25' above sea level has been projected as the 100 year storm surge line, but has no jurisdictional impact. The associated impact of wave action above the 25-foot mark is also neglected, but equally destructive.

• Populations in the Houston Metro area and Galveston Bay area are expected to nearly double by 2035 from established 2005 numbers. Populations in the immediate bay area are expected to increase from 342,000 to 772,000 and available jobs climb from 234,000 to 470,000.

• The bay ecology is one of the richest in the United States and includes over 150 species of finfish and large populations of shrimp, oysters, and crabs. It also serves major habitat functions for neotropical bird migrations of North American and is recognized as an important international birding and fishing destination.

• Freshwater systems are instrumental in feeding the estuary and as much as 60 percent of the entire state of Texas' wastewater flows into Galveston Bay.

It Just Takes a Near-Perfect Storm: The $19 Billion Risk

As Texas and other regions continue growing along coastal and inland waterways, prudent approaches to natural weather-related disaster calls for proper planning, as Ike, Katrina, the Mississippi flooding of 2009 and other events such as the East Coast's Hurricane Sandy remind us. In the Houston-Galveston coastal area of Brazoria, Harris and Galveston counties alone, surge zone improvements are valued to be in excess of $19 billion.

Through research of what's worked, and what hasn't over the years, the SSPEED Center and the Coastal Resilience teams are exploring alternatives that combine a natural-system approach that work with nature's tremendous forces, in combination with engineered structures -- both existing and new ones -- that would support protection zones around existing cities and critical industries.

The discussion and debate has informed the process and continues to contribute to finding viable solutions. We can't wait much longer.

Storms a'coming.