Governments tend to go slow.
Tropical storms, as we were reminded earlier this week, move rather quickly through the Gulf of Mexico.
Nicholas, which became a hurricane before making landfall on the Texas coast late Monday, gave us only a few days’ warning before unleashing rain and wind on the Houston area that caused nearly half a million residents of the region to lose power early Tuesday. And about two weeks beforehand, Hurricane Ida briefly flirted with visiting the Bayou City before ravaging our friends in nearby Louisiana.
In between the two storms, on Sept. 10, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its final study for a $28.8 billion project that proposes to fortify the entire Texas coast and protect it from catastrophic storm surge. A key component of the plan is to construct a multi-faceted coastal barrier at the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel, which is one of the world’s busiest seaports and therefore critical to the local, national and even global economy.
The “Ike Dike” as it’s been called, in response to the significant storm surge caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008, is a great idea that cannot be implemented soon enough. It calls for the installation of a gate system between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, which is the entrance to the ship channel, along with additional gate systems in Clear Lake and Dickinson Bay, improvements to the Galveston Seawall, a ring barrier on the bay side of the island and a beach-and-dune system on Bolivar and West Galveston Island.
The problem is, it cannot be implemented anytime soon, at least according to the “Coastal Texas Study,” which was a collaboration between the Army Corps and the Texas General Land Office and can be viewed online at https://coastalstudy.texas.gov/draft-proposal/index.html.
The study was undertaken in 2014, six years after Ike throttled Galveston and Houston, and it took another seven years and more than $20 million to be completed and ready to send to U.S. Congress for approval and funding.
Guess how much longer it will be before any of this stuff is actually built? According to the study, once Congress signs off on the plan and commits to providing money for it, it could take between 12 and 20 years to move through the design and construction phases.
That’s right. Three decades may pass between Ike and the completion of the dike it inspired.
Meanwhile, there will be more threats of potentially devastating storms as soon as next year, maybe even later this month.
So the fine folks of Greater Houston may not have time to spare, and we’re already on edge. Beginning with the Memorial Day flood in 2015, the region experienced four significant flooding events in a five-year period.
Call Hurricane Nicholas a near miss from adding to that trend, because flooding was expected but thankfully did not end up materializing.
The proposed coastal barrier would not prevent inland flooding caused by heavy rain, to be clear, but it would still provide protection to a critical industry hub that impacts the livability and viability of the entire region.
“These things are coming more frequently,” Garden Oaks Civic Club president Tonya Knauth told me in the aftermath of this week’s storm. “It doesn’t make me feel good.”
And there does not appear to be any other relief on the horizon, not with temperatures continuing to tick upward and weather events becoming more and more severe across the globe. Our climate is changing, and if you don’t think so you’re either in denial or not paying close enough attention.
So we need to act swiftly when it comes to potential life- and industry-saving infrastructure such as the Ike Dike, at least in part so it doesn’t become obsolete before it comes to fruition. Who’s to say that environmental conditions, including along the Texas coast, won’t be significantly different a decade from now?
Now, I realize this issue and the proposed solution are complex and demand lots of time, brainpower and money. I would not have a clue about how to design or construct a barrier system along the coast, nor do I have the finances or the clout to speed things up.
But there has got to be a way, in the 21st century, to cut through all the bureaucratic red tape and get this done before a hurricane makes a direct hit on the largest collection of petrochemical businesses in the United States. Because if that happens, there would be catastrophic consequences both environmentally and economically, and not just in the Houston area.
“People have a right to say, ‘Why is it taking so long?’ ” said Geoff McKeel, the president of the Oak Forest Homeowners Association. “I’m hopeful.”
I’m hopeful, too, for the Ike Dike and for the region to make more headway with the $2.5 billion flood bond passed by Harris County voters in 2018, a year after Hurricane Harvey brought unprecedented flooding to Houston and put the city in the national spotlight. Because I have to wonder, are we any more protected now than we were then?
Heck, while we’re at it, are we any safer from storms than we were in 2008? Considering it’s been 13 years since Ike inundated the region, surely we should be further along with the idea it spawned.
So let’s give our government a collective kick in the pants and get moving before the next hurricane or tropical storm comes our way. We know it won't be long.