A $ 26 Billion Plan to Save the Houston Area from Rising Seas
This story at the origin appeared on Embrace and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
When Hurricane Ike hit land in 2008, Bill Merrell relocated to the second floor of a historic brick building in downtown Galveston, Texas, with his wife, daughter, nephew. and two Chihuahuas. The sustained wind of 110 mph blew the building away. Seawater flooded the shallow ground to a depth of more than 8 meters. Once, at night, Merrell caught the eyes of an almost full moon and realized they were entering the hurricane’s eye.
Years earlier, Merrell, a physical oceanographer at Galveston University Texas A&M, had turned the gigantic barrier to the Eastern Scheldt storm, a bastion about 6 miles long that prevents storms from the North Sea from flooded the southern coast of the Netherlands. As Ike screamed outside, Merrell continued to think about the barrier. “The next morning, I started sketching what I thought seemed reasonable here,” he said, “and it turned out to be quite close to what the Dutch had done.”
These sketches were the start of the Ike Dike, a proposal for a coastal barrier designed to protect Galveston Bay. The core idea: join huge gates through the main entrance to the Bay from the Gulf of Mexico, known as Bolivar Roads, with several miles of high piers.
Just off Galveston, at least 15 people died that night on the Bolivar Peninsula, and the storm destroyed some 3,600 homes there. The bodies were still missing the following year when Merrell began promoting the Ike Dike, but, he said, the idea “was really ridiculously universal enough.” Politicians didn’t like its costs, environmentalists were worried about its impacts, and no one was convinced it would work.
Merrell persisted. Returning to the Netherlands, he visited experts at the University of Delft and sent his support. Over the next few years, Dutch and American academic researchers have conducted dozens of studies on Galveston Bay options, while Merrell and his allies have gathered support from local communities, business leaders and politicians.
In 2014, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers partnered with the state to study similar alternatives to Ike Dike for Galveston Bay. After several iterations, it billed to establish a government structure for the $ 26.2 billion barrier proposal, which the Corps has developed alongside the Texas General Territorial Office, has recently passed the Texas House and Senate. In September, the Corps forwarded its recommendations to the U.S. Congress, which will approve funding for the project.
No one can guess the exact fate of the barrier proposal, given its enormous price. And while sea levels rise and storms intensify with global climate change, Houston is far from the only U.S. coastal metropolitan area at serious risk. Multimillion-dollar coastal megaprojects are already underway or under consideration from San Francisco to Miami to New York.
President Joe Biden’s new $ 2 billion national infrastructure initiative specifically requires projects on the country’s coasts. The initiative for Houston, the fifth largest metropolitan area in the United States and the vulnerable core of the petrochemical industry, highlights tough decisions for coastal megaprojects, which must balance social needs, engineering capacity, environmental protection and costs.
Meanwhile, the seas continue to rise. “There’s a significant tension between the need to address these issues and make it happen,” said Carly Foster, an expert in resilience at global design consultancy Arcadis, “and also doing well.”