If Hurricane Ida had veered west and hit Galveston, its 15-foot storm surge could have devastated the city and plowed up the Houston Ship Channel, smashing into residential communities and industrial facilities; its 150 mph winds could have left much of the Houston area without power for weeks, experts said.
The region dodged yet another bullet last Sunday when Ida made landfall in Louisiana, inflicting catastrophic damage on its residents, property and oil-driven economy.
But Houston’s streak of relatively good luck since Hurricane Harvey four years ago is unlikely to last as climate change is expected to bring about more destructive hurricanes and sea level rise. A Category 4 hurricane such as Ida — which brought a triple threat of wind, storm surge and torrential rainfall — would have wreaked havoc on the Bayou City.
Unlike New Orleans, which strengthened its levee system after Hurricane Katrina in 2007, Houston hasn’t completed any substantial projects to protect the region against surge from a major hurricane such as Ida. The stakes are high: The Houston area is home to 7.1 million residents, one of the busiest shipping ports in the country and the nation’s largest concentration of critical oil and gas facilities.
“We are sitting ducks right now for a storm,” said Bill Merrell, a Texas A&M University professor who began advocating for an “Ike Dike” coastal barrier system years ago that has yet to get congressional approval.
If Ida had hit Galveston instead of Port Fouchon, La., the hurricane could have caused devastating damage across the Houston region, meteorologists said.
Ida’s 15-foot storm surge would have been smaller than Hurricane Ike’s 22-foot storm surge, the worst of which hit Bolivar Peninsula and parts of Chambers County in 2008. The Port of Houston’s facilities, which are built 20 feet above sea level, likely would have survived.
Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, said hurricane mitigation efforts should go beyond the barrier project. While the Ike Dike could help stop an Ida-like storm surge, the barrier system isn’t designed to withstand winds from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane or prevent major flooding inland from rain. Harris County has undertaken a number of projects since Hurricane Harvey to increase storage capacity for and conveyance of rainfall; a separate Corps project looking at addressing rainfall is still in the planning phase.
Just as power plants should be ordered to weatherize their equipment for winter freezes, Houston leaders should be urging the oil and gas industry to shore up thousands of chemical storage tanks along the Gulf Coast, which are vulnerable to spills in the event of storm surge and extreme winds. And more homes along the Ship Channel should be bought out or elevated, Stokes said.
“Even if you think the coastal barrier is a great solution, it shouldn’t be the end solution,” Stokes said. “Even if you had all the money in hand, it will take decades to build. We can be doing more in the short term that could make a big difference.”
This story is an advertisement for building the Ike Dike, but as it and this other story make clear, there has to be more. The Ike Dike is necessary but not sufficient. We have done some things in the Houston area, with the 2018 referendum helping out even as it has had its problems, but as always there is more to do.
I tend to look at problems like this through a cybersecurity lens. Anyone in that business will tell you that you cannot fully eliminate your risk – indeed, in the context of a large business network, it’s guaranteed that you will experience breaches and infections – but there are many things you can do to mitigate them. No one thing covers all scenarios, but the various solutions overlap and complement each other, with the idea being that if one thing doesn’t work then something else will, and if all else fails you can detect and respond to the situation quickly. It’s called “defense in depth”, and it’s sturdier and more resilient than any single solution, because if you just rely on one thing to keep you safe and that one thing fails in some way, you’re hosed. We need the Ike Dike and we’ve needed it for a long time, but even as we finally move towards getting it, we will continue to need more than that. The more we can do right now to bolster and complement the future Ike Dike, the better off we will be.