Commentary: Why the Ike Dike is the best fix for storm surge on Gulf

The Galveston Bay region desperately needs protection from hurricane-induced storm surge soon. Engineered storm barriers are the only solutions that can accomplish this — and the coastal spine/Ike Dike concept is by far the best and most widely supported approach.

Surge suppression for Houston and Galveston is an imperative, not a nicety. The upper Texas Coast is hit by a major hurricane about every 15 years. It’s not a matter of if, but when, the next one hits. In 2005, Rita was our last major hurricane missing Galveston Bay, but it prompted an evacuation that killed 108 people.

On Sept. 13, 2008, Ike, a Category 2 storm, passed directly over Galveston and onto Houston, causing damage of over $30 billion. Although those of us who lived through Ike think of it as a devastating storm, it could have been much worse. Had Ike stayed on this forecast track, hitting west of Galveston, the storm damages would have been about $100 billion — and thousands of people would have died.

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Surge barriers like those long-used in Europe and now newly constructed in New Orleans provide proven defense against storm surge. A properly designed, constructed and maintained surge barrier will work for the Galveston/Houston region. Massive hurricane storm surges in Galveston Bay can be a thing of the past.

Recently, some arguments have resurfaced claiming that natural barriers, wetlands and conservation easements would provide adequate protection. It simply isn’t true. Careful scientific modeling and experience shows they provide little protection against large storms. If natural barriers didn’t work against Ike’s surge, there is no reason to believe that they would work in the future.

Meanwhile, since Ike, the Houston-Galveston region has increased both its population and infrastructure near the coast — and the relative sea level has increased. Like the rest of the world, we are moving towards the coast — and the seas are rising to greet us. Like the rest of the world, we need to look at proven engineered solutions for our protection.

Texas A&M University at Galveston, working with its research partners — Delft Technical University in the Netherlands, Jackson State University, and the Homeland Security Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence — has developed a coastal spine concept that suppresses storm surge in the entire Galveston Bay region: the Ike Dike.

The Ike Dike intercepts the surge at the coast and extends the protection afforded by Galveston’s seawall. This is done through the placement of sand-covered revetments on the island’s west end and on the Bolivar Peninsula.

Our research and that of others — notably the six-county Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District — shows the coastal spine approach is technically feasible, economically and environmentally sound and socially just. Certainly, more research and detailed work is necessary to develop the best design that fits into our upper Texas coastal fabric and provides the greatest benefits for the region, though the basic concept is sound and widely supported.

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This inclusive concept has been endorsed by 29 cities around the bay and numerous civic and economic development organizations. The Texas Legislature set up a joint Senate/House committee to study it and passed a resolution asking the U.S. Congress to advance the concept nationally. Recently, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush sent a letter to President Donald Trump — cosigned by 63 mayors, county officials and prominent citizens from the Galveston Bay region — proposing that such a coastal spine be included in the president’s infrastructure initiative.

With the grave threat to our region, the ninth anniversary of Ike, the 12th anniversary of Rita, and a viable widely supported concept for surge suppression available, we should be doing everything possible to support Commissioner Bush as he works to protect all of us from storm surge.

Merrell is the George Mitchell Chair at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

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