Technology

A $26 billion plan to save the Houston area from rising seas


This story is original featured on not dark which is part of Climate office cooperation.

When Hurricane Ike made landfall in 2008, Bill Merrill took refuge on the second floor of a historic brick building in downtown Galveston, Texas, with his wife, daughter, grandson, and two Chihuahuas. Continuous winds of up to 110 miles per hour hit the building. Sea water submerged the ground floor to a depth of more than 8 feet. Once, at night, Merrill caught glimpses of a near-full moon and realized they had gotten into the eye of a hurricane.

Years ago, Merrill, a physical oceanographer at Texas A&M University at Galveston, toured the giant Scheldt East Barrier, a nearly 6-mile-long fortress that keeps North Sea storms from inundating the southern Dutch coast. While Ike was hammering outside, Meryl kept thinking about the barrier. “The next morning,” he said, “I began to draw what I thought would be reasonable here, and it turned out to be very close to what the Dutch would have done.”

These drawings marked the beginning of the Ike Dike, a proposal for a coastal barrier intended to protect Galveston Bay. The basic idea: to combine the massive gates across the main entrance to the bay from the Gulf of Mexico, known as the Bolivar Roads, with many miles of high seawalls.

On the other side of Galveston, at least 15 people died that night on the Bolivar Peninsula, and the storm destroyed about 3,600 homes there. The bodies were still missing the following year when Merrill began promoting Ike Dike, but he said the idea “was the subject of a truly global laugh.” Politicians didn’t like its costs, environmentalists worried about its effects, and no one was convinced it would work.

Merrill insisted. After returning to the Netherlands, he visited experts at Delft University and rallied their support. Over the next few years, Dutch and American academic researchers conducted dozens of studies of Galveston Bay options, while Merrill and his allies mobilized support from local communities, business leaders, and politicians.

In 2014, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers teamed up with the state to study Dick-like alternatives to Galveston Bay. After many iterations, bills to create a management structure for the $26.2 billion barrier SuggestionDeveloped by the Legion along with the Texas General Land Office, it recently passed both the Texas House and Senate. In September, the Corps will send its recommendations to the US Congress, which will need to approve funding for the project.

No one could guess the exact fate of the barrier proposal, given its enormous price tag. As sea levels rise and storms intensify with global climate change, Houston is far from the only coastal metropolitan area in the United States at serious risk. Mega-billion dollar coastal projects are already underway or under consideration from San Francisco to Miami to New York City.

President Joe Biden’s new $2 trillion National Infrastructure Initiative specifically calls for projects on the blockaded country’s coasts. The Houston initiative, the fifth largest metro area in the United States and the weak heart of the petrochemical industry, highlights challenging decisions for mega coastal projects, which must balance societal needs with engineering capabilities, environmental protection and costs.

Meanwhile, the seas continue to rise. “It’s a huge tension between needing to address these issues and doing it quickly,” said Carly Foster, a resilience expert at global design consultancy Arcadis, “and also doing it right.”

Hurricane Ike, seen 220 miles above Earth from the International Space Station, on September 10, 2008.

Photo: NASA



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