Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Gulf of Mexico

Kemp’s ridley turtles making a comeback

We deserve a little good news.

For the first time in 75 years, hatchlings of the world’s smallest sea turtle species have been discovered on the Chandeleur Islands, a chain of barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of New Orleans.

Wildlife experts at the Breton national wildlife refuge have documented more than 53 turtle crawls and two live hatchlings that were navigating towards the sea, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority announced in a press statement this week.

The news was particularly uplifting for environmentalists because the hatchlings were Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, an endangered species that also happens to be the world’s smallest sea turtle. The turtles are predominantly found in the Gulf, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Their population flourished during the early 1900s as tens of thousands of females nested in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. However, from the mid-1900s to the 1980s, their population dropped drastically, reaching a low of only several hundred females.

Some of the major threats Kemp’s ridleys face include being caught unintentionally by fishers, being harvested or having their eggs harvested, degradation of their nesting habitats, natural predators preying on their eggs and hatchlings, being struck by sea vessels, ocean pollution and climate change.

The recent discovery of the hatchlings in Louisiana is particularly significant as 95% of the nesting take place in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

“Louisiana was largely written off as a nesting spot for sea turtles decades ago, but this determination demonstrates why barrier island restoration is so important,” said the coastal authority’s chairman, Chip Kline.

He added: “As we develop and implement projects statewide, we are always keeping in mind what’s needed to preserve our communities and enhance wildlife habitat. Having this knowledge now allows us to make sure these turtles and other wildlife return to our shores year after year.”

Times were especially tough for the Kemp’s ridleys after the BP oils spill in 2010, as I noted here and here. This doesn’t mean that they’re out of trouble, but it is a very good sign of progress. That’s worth celebrating.

More on the seafaring abortion clinic

There were a couple of stories on that proposed abortion clinic on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, which will operate in federal waters and thus be outside state jurisdiction. The clinic is intended to serve women in the Gulf Coast states, all of whom are living in states that are hostile to abortion rights (though it is still legal in Florida for now), and as Dr. Meg Autry, the creator of the idea who is now busy fundraising for it, it would be a lot closer geographically for a lot of these women than other states with legal clinics would be.

All of that is in the two stories. I want to focus on what I fixated on in my original post, which is the security and legal threats to this idea. I’m just going to pull from those sections of the stories. We’ll start with NPR:

Autry and her nonprofit are also hesitant to provide too much detail about how people will be able to access the vessel, citing safety concerns. Without elaborating, she says she anticipates that her group will be a part of the many existing networks trying to coordinate abortion care for people who can’t get it in their state.

People seeking or providing an abortion could face prosecution or, Autry fears, violence. She calls security her group’s top concern.

And she says that while their team is secure in their understanding of the law, it’s bracing for potential legal challenges “along the way, all the time.” That’s in part because of ever-changing laws and lawsuits unfolding in restrictive states.

Amanda Allen, senior counsel and director at the Lawyering Project — which represents PRROWESS — tells NPR over email that there’s no doubt about the legality of providing abortions at sea, because states don’t have jurisdiction over the care provided in federal or international waters. She compares it to the way that an abortion provider in New York would care for a patient traveling from a restrictive state.

Still, she says their team is exploring the same questions that they would look at in the case of a provider looking to open a clinic in a state where abortions are not banned.

Those include whether there are rules governing the facility where the care is provided, and what kind of licensure and staffing is required. They’re also looking at the threats that could face abortion providers — floating or otherwise — who treat patients traveling from restrictive states.

“Given the climate of abortion access post-Dobbs, nothing is zero-risk,” Allen writes. “Because of that we are concerned about the same types of extraterritorial questions that are already creating chaos and legal uncertainty onshore. While a state’s criminal laws should not reach a provider at sea, a rogue prosecutor could choose to target PRROWESS, or a hostile state authority could open an investigation.”

And here’s Yahoo News.

So what does maritime law say about abortions at sea? “Maritime law, by its own force, doesn’t speak to abortions provided at sea,” Matthew Steffey, a professor of law at Mississippi College specializing in maritime law, tells Yahoo Life. “In theory, a maritime treaty could cover the subject, but I don’t know of one that would. Assuming the vessel is outside state territorial waters, a state’s laws would not apply. Outside of waters controlled by a state or nation, the ship’s flag determines the source of law. So the ship’s home country’s laws apply.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t risks. While Steffey adds that it’s “entirely possible” an “aggressive” district attorney could “seek to bring charges to someone who travels from their jurisdiction to an offshore abortion provider,” he points out that “there is a very good chance that those charges would be ultimately dismissed as violating the U.S. Constitution. Otherwise, a local DA could prosecute anyone for conduct legal in the state where the conduct occurred — such as consuming cannabis, gambling, etc. — once they returned home.”

That said, Steffey notes that “someone who operates a tender vessel to take patients from shore to ship would be taking a great legal risk, as they’d be operating inside the state.”

Autry isn’t willing to share the details on how exactly patients would be ferried from shore to ship for security purposes, but she says, “What we’re most worried about are the patients. Our plan is that our vessel and the provider and the crew will never touch a restricted state. But obviously, the patients have to get there.”

It is one of the many logistical issues that abortion providers and abortion rights advocates are facing right now. “Abortion providers, policymakers and so many others across the country are dedicated to finding ways to ensure people can get the care they need,” Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center, tells Yahoo Life. “But the court’s decision has unleashed legal chaos, and as more and more states ban abortion, we face a host of unknown questions about criminal liability, surveillance and potential prosecution.”

Borchelt adds: “We are all navigating a dangerous, appalling and rapidly evolving landscape to help people get care that should be legal, affordable and available but instead is criminalized.”

Slate had an interview with Dr. Autry a few days before those stories; it didn’t have anything to say about the security and legal stuff, so I hadn’t linked to it before now. That line about “the patients have to get there” is as I’ve said the single biggest point of vulnerability for this clinic and its patients. We’ve seen what Republican and other forced-birth fanatics in Texas are willing and planning to do. I believe they will push the legal envelope on this as far as they can, secure in the knowledge that even if SCOTUS eventually trims them back a bit, the Fifth Circuit will ensure that there won’t be an injunction against whatever crazy laws they pass while the matter is being litigated. I guarantee that SB8, the bounty hunter law, will be fully utilized. It’s going to be super duper ugly and expensive.

I don’t say any of this to be a bummer, but to be a realist. This is what we’re up against, and it will remain that way until we get 1) a federal law that can block at least some of this bullshit; 2) a different (which in any near-term context means “expanded”) SCOTUS that re-reverses itself; or 3) a Texas government that is able to undo all of this legislative harm. Of those three, that last one is guaranteed to not be in the cards in the near term. We can elect Beto and prevent further damage, but until we can also flip both the House and the Senate, we’re stuck with the laws we have. Maybe flipping the State Supreme Court might help as well, but that’s a minimum of two cycles at least. If we’re very lucky, we can get that federal law in 2023. Until then and otherwise, this is where we are.

Offshore wind farm proposed

Let’s do it.

The Gulf of Mexico’s first offshore wind farms will be developed off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, the Biden administration announced Wednesday, and together they’re projected to produce enough energy to power around 3 million homes.

The wind farms likely will not be up and running for years, energy analysts and the state’s grid operator said, but the announcement from the U.S. Interior Department is the first step in ramping up offshore wind energy in the United States, which has lagged behind that of Europe and China. The only two operating offshore wind energy farms in the U.S. are off the coasts of Rhode Island and Virginia, which together produce 42 megawatts of electricity — enough to power fewer than 2,500 homes.

One of the new wind projects announced Wednesday will be developed 24 nautical miles off the coast of Galveston, covering a total of 546,645 acres — bigger than the city of Houston — with the potential to power 2.3 million homes, according to the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The other project will be developed near Port Arthur, about 56 nautical miles off the coast of Lake Charles, Louisiana, covering 188,023 acres with the potential to power 799,000 homes.

“It’s exciting to see offshore wind in the Gulf getting closer to reality,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, an environmental protection group. “With strong winds in the evenings when we need energy the most, offshore wind in the Gulf of Mexico would greatly complement Texas’ onshore renewable energy resources, help bolster our shaky electric grid and help our environment.”

[…]

“Offshore wind has a great potential in Texas,” Brad Jones, president of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages Texas’ main power grid, told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “It will take some time to develop, and that time will be based on how quickly we can put together port facilities, the specialized ships that are necessary and train our labor force to achieve this type of development. It is new for the U.S.”

I suppose it’s a sign of the times that when I read stories like this I go looking for the bit where Ken Paxton threatens to file a lawsuit to stop it. I may need therapy. No mention of any such action in this story, or in the Chron story that has a few more details.

The wind energy area proposal is still just a draft, the bureau said. Visitors to its website can comment on the plans, and the bureau will hold online public meetings Aug. 9 and 11 to discuss the proposals.

“Once the final wind energy area or areas have been identified, the next step is to propose a lease sale for public comment either later this year or early next year,” said John Filostrat, a spokesman for BOEM’s Gulf of Mexico office.

The bureau said state officials and wind developers would determine if electricity generated in the areas’ boundaries would flow to the Texas power grid or the neighboring East Coast grid system. The Coast Guard would determine if commercial or recreational boats — including commercial fishing and shrimping operations — could enter the waters near the wind turbines, bureau officials said, adding that they have held several meetings with fishing groups and associations this year.

As a result, they said they have already carved out parcels from the lease area to leave bare for shrimping operations to continue.

[…]

Wind power along the Gulf Coast tends to be strongest south of Corpus Christi, tapering off by the time it reaches Florida, according to a bureau study.

Even so, the Gulf of Mexico has a leg up on the competition, said Josh Kaplowitz, vice president of offshore wind for the American Clean Power Association. The region is home to an entire supply chain dedicated to offshore energy and a trained workforce. Already, he said, a massive wind turbine installation vessel is being built in Brownsville.

“The Gulf of Mexico has a head start, and we should be leveraging that,” he said. “Wind turbine technology is getting better. They’re getting larger, and as they get larger they can be built in a more economical way at lower wind speeds.”

One issue more pressing for Gulf turbines than those in other offshore areas is the potential for strong hurricanes. Kaplowitz said the turbines off Rhode Island and those designed for off the coast of North Carolina have been engineered to withstand hurricane-force winds. He said those built off the Texas coast would likely be designed to withstand winds of the strongest storms projected to hit that part of the coast.

Offshore wind turbines have yet to be tested in such a ferocious storm, Andy Swift, associate director of education with Texas Tech’s National Wind Institute, told the Chronicle in October. Turbines onshore have suffered catastrophic damage in tornadoes, he said, requiring companies to take out large insurance policies on them. That could also be the case in the Gulf, he said.

“The storm issue — it’s a big one. I think people are looking at building more hurricane-resistant turbines as much as they can to stand against the high winds continually buffering of equipment, with waves and winds gusting against it,” Swift said in October. “I think that’s a challenge for offshore.”

The BOEM’s press release about this is here, and it points you to this page for info about public meetings and providing feedback. This is likely the start of a ten-year process, so settle in and make yourself comfortable. Assuming there isn’t already a national injunction against it issued by some cretinous Trump judge in Lubbock or something. Did I mention that I need help?

A seafaring abortion clinic?

It could happen.

A California doctor has a plan to launch a floating reproductive health clinic in the Gulf of Mexico, where care will be regulated by federal — not state — law.

The plan — currently in the fundraising stage — hopes to make surgical abortions, contraception and other reproductive health services available to Gulf Coast patients living in states restricting such services.

“Those in the most southern parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas may be closer to the coast than to facilities in bordering states where abortion and reproductive health care are available,” reads the website for the ship, named PRROWESS — an acronym for Protecting Reproductive Rights of Women Endangered by State Statutes. It added that similar facilities “have been used by the military and relief organizations for years.”

The plan was first reported by San Francisco-based KCBS Radio, which said that the effort was being organized by a Bay Area Ob-Gyn, Meg Autry.

Autry, who is from the South, told the Chronicle that her inspiration traces back to a phenomenon popular along the Mississippi: riverboat casinos. The fact that different laws applied to gambling on land and on water led her to consult with lawyers about whether there may be a way to continue providing abortion access after the Supreme Court reversed the Roe vs. Wade decision that protected the procedure.

“We believe that patients should be able to make a choice,” she said.

The legal team of the PRROWESS now includes maritime lawyers and criminal attorneys, who have determined that a floating clinic in federal waters would be able to legally provide services that individual states may restrict, such as surgical abortions.

[…]

The PRROWESS would offer surgical abortions up to 14 weeks after conception, as well as contraception, vaccinations and on-site testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. The ship would have a helicopter in addition to water shuttles so that patients could be quickly transported in case of emergencies.

Patients would be pre-screened and provided transportation arrangements onto the vessel, which would operate three weeks out of every month, to give it down time for maintenance and flexibility for weather conditions. Autry estimated that the clinic would be able to see 1,800 patients every six months, but said that number would increase if it acquired a larger ship.

Autry said the floating clinic would be an important resource for patients living near the Gulf who wanted a surgical abortion, since the proximity would make it easier for them to get to and require them to take less time off from work. It may also be less expensive than flying patients to states where abortion is legal.

I mean, it’s an interesting and creative idea, at a time when we need all the creative ideas we can get. It could work, but I think its main vulnerability, which was not at all addressed by the very basic website FAQ is that the only access to this ship will be from the shores of a state that is already hostile to abortion. Some part of this operation will have to physically exist in at least one of these states, and that will be the prime target. I guarantee you, the forced-birth radicals of the Texas Legislature will have a dozen or more bills aimed at this venture pre-filed before January. That’s not an admonition against doing this, it’s free advice to ensure those lawyers that PRROWESS says it is consulting had better do a lot of outside-the-box thinking, and be ready for all kinds of crazy stuff. Remember that the vigilante bounty-hunter law SB8 will definitely apply to anyone who helps transport a patient to that ship, and that will include harbor/marina/dock workers that touch any transport boats. They’re already threatening businesses with the 1925 law, with the promise of much more to come. Know your enemy really well, and don’t get caught flat-footed, that’s all I’m saying. NBC Bay Area has more.

This could be a really bad hurricane season

Anytime the year 2005 is used as a point of comparison, it’s bad news.

The Atlantic hurricane season starts on June 1, and the Gulf of Mexico is already warmer than average. Even more worrying is a current of warm tropical water that is looping unusually far into the Gulf for this time of year, with the power to turn tropical storms into monster hurricanes.

It’s called the Loop Current, and it’s the 800-pound gorilla of Gulf hurricane risks.

When the Loop Current reaches this far north this early in the hurricane season – especially during what’s forecast to be a busy season – it can spell disaster for folks along the Northern Gulf Coast, from Texas to Florida.

If you look at temperature maps of the Gulf of Mexico, you can easily spot the Loop Current. It curls up through the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba, into the Gulf of Mexico, and then swings back out through the Florida Strait south of Florida as the Florida Current, where it becomes the main contributor to the Gulf Stream.

When a tropical storm passes over the Loop Current or one of its giant eddies – large rotating pools of warm water that spin off from the current – the storm can explode in strength as it draws energy from the warm water.

This year, the Loop Current looks remarkably similar to the way it did in 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina crossed the Loop Current before devastating New Orleans. Of the 27 named storms that year, seven became major hurricanes. Wilma and Rita also crossed the Loop Current that year and became two of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes on record.

I have been monitoring ocean heat content for more than 30 years as a marine scientist. The conditions I’m seeing in the Gulf in May 2022 are cause for concern. One prominent forecast anticipates 19 tropical storms – 32% more than average – and nine hurricanes. The Loop Current has the potential to supercharge some of those storms.

It’s been a super warm month of May, so the conditions have not abated any. There’s only so much we can do about this right now except be prepared and hope for the best. At least now you know.

UPDATE: Just in time for more season predictions.

Hurricane season along the Atlantic Ocean is expected to be more active than usual this year, with a higher probability that major storms will make landfall in Texas and other areas along the eastern coast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday.

The Atlantic hurricane season officially starts June 1, and the national agency’s findings are consistent with other scientific organizations’ predictions. According to NOAA, there is a 65% chance the hurricane season will be more active than usual and only a 10% chance that this year will have below-average activity.

NOAA expects this season, which extends until Nov. 30, will have 14 to 21 named storms. Six to 10 could become hurricanes — including three to six major ones with winds of 111 mph or higher. The average season has 14 named storms.

If the prediction comes true, 2022 will be the seventh consecutive above-average season for Atlantic hurricanes in the U.S.

Factors like La Niña, warmer sea surface temperatures and an enhanced West African monsoon will all likely contribute to an above-average season this year, NOAA officials said. Climate change has contributed to make those phenomenons more intense, NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said Tuesday.

[…]

A Colorado State University study similarly found that probabilities for major hurricanes this season are higher than average, with a 71% chance of at least one major hurricane across the continental U.S. coastline, compared to an average 52% chance. The study also found that the Gulf Coast, from the Florida Panhandle to Brownsville, has a 46% chance of at least one major hurricane this season, which is 16% higher than last century’s average.

“Essentially everything is pointing toward an active Atlantic season,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas state climatologist and director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A&M University. “It doesn’t guarantee one but it makes it quite a bit more likely.”

Nielsen-Gammon said anywhere along the coast that’s less than 25 feet above sea level is potentially vulnerable to a storm surge, and that hurricane-force winds can be felt in Texas even hundreds of miles inland.

As I said before, maybe we need to redefine what an “average” season is now. In the meantime, get your supplies and have an evacuation plan in mind. And hope for the best.

Rough times for oysters

It’s bad for oyster fishers, too. But if there just aren’t enough oysters to support harvesting them, well…

Currently, 25 of the state’s 27 harvesting areas are already closed. The season normally runs from Nov. 1 through April 30, but many of the areas have been closed since mid-December – a move the state says is necessary for future sustainability.

But those in the oyster business worry about the sustainability of their industry and livelihoods — and it’s set up a clash between state officials and oyster harvesters over how the resource should be managed.

[…]

The Gulf Coast region produces 45% of the nation’s $250 million oyster industry, according to NOAA fisheries. In Texas, the industry contributes an estimated $50 million to the state economy.

The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department decides when to close areas for harvesting using a traffic-light system that went into effect in 2015. If samples taken by state biologists come back with too many small oysters or too few oysters in general the agency closes the area.

[…]

Texas oysters have been having a rough decade, enduring hurricanes, flood events, and drought, says Jennifer Pollack with the Harte Research Institute.

“Oyster reefs really just aren’t able to recover from the things that we see happening to them,” Pollack says.

Across the Gulf Coast region, an estimated 50-85% of the original oyster reefs have disappeared, according to a report by the Nature Conservancy. They’ve been hit with hurricanes, flood events, droughts and the BP oil spill.

In Galveston, Hurricane Ike in 2008 was particularly devastating, destroying more than 6,000 acres of oyster habitat there, according to TPWD.

We have all these disturbances that knock the reefs back, we have harvesting that continues, that probably keeps them at maybe a lower abundance level of oysters in the bay,” Pollack says. “They just can never climb back out so they’re a little bit less resilient next time something happens.”

A lot of these conditions – droughts, heavier rainfall – are only expected to be exacerbated by climate change.

Beyond the temporary closures, Texas Parks & Wildlife is also studying the permanent closure of three bays.

Oyster harvesters argue with the methodology that the TPWD uses to determine when bays should be closed, but it feels like we’re just rearranging the deck chairs. If oyster populations are declining like that, we need to take action now to ensure they don’t go away permanently. That’s rough on the people who make their living fishing them, but I don’t know what a better alternative is.

A tour of the future Ike Dike

Fascinating stuff.

Federal engineers envisioned a massive version of the “Ike Dike” plan to protect the region from hurricane storm surge. It’s currently sitting with lawmakers, who have to decide whether to pay their share of the $29 billion proposal and move the years-long project ahead.

Those weighing these ideas must consider a granular level of detail, block-by-block, as a recent bus tour of the concept with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made clear. Every component of the new infrastructure stands to change the landscape for people, wildlife and businesses. Each small choice for the huge project matters, such as which homes get left unprotected and what color sand is used to build dunes.

Three main components make up the bulk of the planned work around Galveston Island, where the Gulf Coast Protection District members made a series of stops, each with unique concerns. A series of towering gates will cross the mouth of Galveston Bay. Two lines of dunes will span the island’s west end. What’s known as a ring barrier will encircle the most concentrated part of the city.

Advocates have criticized the plan’s myriad possible environmental impacts, including turtles potentially being crushed by the gates and restricted water flow into and out of the bay. They’ve called for more nature-based solutions and emphasized that no silver bullet will protect people from every storm.

But political support appears to be building for the project, as each hurricane season brings fear of significant damage to the energy capital of the world. The state legislature created the protection district to begin preparing for the project. Members of this group rode the bus last Wednesday with Corps’ outreach specialist Kelly Burks-Copes.

What follows is a story with a ton of photos describing where Ike Dike construction will be, some of the things it will and won’t protect, compromises already made, and more. One detail that I marveled at:

The west end of the island will get two rows of dunes. Burks-Copes described them as “somewhat sacrificial,” meaning they will erode away with time and will need to be built back. There will be drive-overs and walk-overs so people can still access the beach. People swam in the ocean as the tour group disembarked. A bird stuck its beak in the sand.

Building back the dunes isn’t as simple as it sounds. The color of the sand dictates temperature, which in turn influences the gender of newborn turtles, Burks-Copes said, so engineers plan to carefully match the natural hues. The previously-built dunes that day at the end of the seawall were so small that the walkover to get over them basically rose high over flat sand.

Now I need to go down a Google rabbit hole to learn more about the correlation between sand color and turtle gender. You can go read the rest of this story.

The New Orleans perspective on the Ike Dike

Of interest.

Kelly Burks-Copes braces herself against the wind and marches past the ruins of Fort San Jacinto, a strategic spot on a sandy, wave-battered point where Spain, France, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy and the United States have all taken turns building coastal defenses to protect Galveston Bay.

Now it’s Burks-Copes’ turn. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager is leading an ambitious effort to build the “Ike Dike,” a $30 billion storm protection project that’s been in the works since its namesake hurricane roared through the bay almost 14 years ago. The project will dwarf the one built around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and perhaps even the immense coastal barriers in the Netherlands that inspired both Gulf Coast projects.

“If it’s not the largest surge barrier in the world, it’s certainly the world’s longest,” Burks-Copes said, pointing at the 2.5-mile-wide channel between the old fort site on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

By comparison, the Lake Borgne surge barrier between New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish, once considered the world’s largest, is 1.8 miles long. Had the New Orleans system been built today, it’d cost about 70% as much as the Houston system.

“It’ll be like a 10-story building all the way across,” Burks-Copes said of the Galveston Bay surge barrier. “It’s something that you can barely imagine. But what do they say in Texas? ‘Go big or go home.’”

The project aims to harden 70 miles of coastline with artificial dunes, sea walls and vast steel gates, making the bay a veritable fortress that could be sealed when hurricanes threaten.

It’s ambitious and expensive, but it still may be woefully inadequate — just like New Orleans’ system.

Neither project is likely to hold up against the worst hurricanes. The New Orleans collection of levees and floodwalls is designed to withstand storm surges with a 1% chance of occurring in any given year, a so-called 100-year storm. The Ike Dike may not even meet that level of protection, the Corps admits.

Climate change is increasing the likelihood that 100-year storms and floods could occur every few years, with monster 500-year storms popping up every 50 to 100 years. The Houston area has seen no fewer than three such events, including Hurricane Harvey, between 2015 and 2018.

“Look, (the Ike Dike) needs to be built,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer who teaches at Rice University in Houston. “But it needs to be built for the bigger storms to come. It will be way outdated once it’s constructed.”

See here and here for the most recent updates. I know we’re in for a long haul here, but I hadn’t thought of it before in the terms Blackburn expresses, that we’re going to have to keep going, and maybe even start over at the drawing board, when this thing is built. That’s more than a little daunting, and maybe a bit discouraging, but we can’t let up. Even an outdated Ike Dike is going to be better than no Ike Dike, and it will serve as the starting point for Ike Dike II: The Next Generation. What other choice do we have? Read the rest, there’s a lot more.

It’s hurricane forecast season

Gonna be busy again. You should know what to do about it by now.

Another above-average hurricane season is in the forecast for 2022. A prediction issued Thursday by scientists at Colorado State University says there will be at least 19 named storms and nine hurricanes — four of which will be Category 3 or higher.

An average season normally has 14 named storms, around seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

Residents living along the U.S. coastline and in the Caribbean should be prepared for “an above-average probability for major hurricanes making landfall” near their homes, researchers said. Hurricane season begins officially in June and lasts through November.

“As is the case with all hurricane seasons, coastal residents are reminded that it only takes one hurricane making landfall to make it an active season for them,” the researchers said. “They should prepare the same for every season, regardless of how much activity is predicted.”

The busier-than-average predicted season continues a trend that researchers have seen for some time. Last season, CSU scientists predicted 17 named storms and four major hurricanes.

It ended up being the third most active season on record, with 21 named storms. There were seven hurricanes last season — four of which were considered major.

Hurricanes are likelier to be larger and more powerful as they form over hotter ocean water. Thanks to climate change, global sea-surface temperatures are rising.

Not all storms make landfall. But those that do can lead to more than $1 billion in damage, especially as these storms continue to cause more severe flooding.

You can see the CSU forecast here. There will be others – the NOAA will get into the act as well – but I doubt they’ll disagree too much. And look, years with below-average activity are increasingly the exception these days. At least until the move up what “average activity” means. So yeah, get used to it.

Let’s pay some attention to the Gulf Coast Protection District

They may raise some tax revenue to help pay for the Ike Dike, so best to know what’s happening with it. Especially since they didn’t exactly go out of their way to make it easy to do that.

Danielle Goshen spent months trying to figure out when and where the new group that will work on funding the so-called Ike Dike was meeting. The environmental advocate was eager to know how the Gulf Coast Protection District would cover the local cost if Congress approves the sweeping coastal barrier project.

Goshen is a policy specialist and counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. She’s concerned about pursuing a $29 billion dollar plan, with the prospect that the project could cost even more. The proposal calls for building a massive series of gates across the mouth of Galveston Bay to stop hurricane storm surges from pushing up the industry-lined ship channel.

The legislature created the protection district to find local funding for 35 percent of the portion of the project built here — perhaps by levying taxes. Supporters say the concept is necessary as climate change will likely strengthen the winds and rains of future storms. Advocates such as Goshen caution it will take at least 12 years to design and build. Non-federal funding needed for the barrier system is about $10 billion.

Environmental advocates have expressed wide-ranging concerns about the proposal, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finalized last fall. They’ve pressed for more information about how the foundations of the gates will restrict water flow between Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, potentially impacting water quality and marine life. The barrier also won’t stop the worst of storms and it will still leave the region especially vulnerable during the years it takes to build.

Harris County is the most populous of the five counties the district represents, and residents could be responsible for some 85 percent of the local tax share for the proposal, making for about a 20 percent tax increase, Harris County Administrator David Berry said in December. Galveston, Chambers, Jefferson and Orange counties are also in the district’s jurisdiction.

The costly burden makes it all the more pressing for stakeholders and residents to be tuned into the decision making, Goshen said.

“The real concern is that they’re not doing enough to make these meetings accessible to the public and to really get the word out that they’re having these meetings in the first place,” Goshen said, adding, “We really think that it’s imperative that this district has public engagement at the top of mind.”

Goshen kept searching online for months for information about the meetings, she said, and found nothing. It wasn’t until near the end of 2021 that someone forwarded her an agenda.

It turned out Gov. Greg Abbott had appointed six board members in June. Each county’s commissioners court picked one additional board member. The group had been getting together since August. The meetings were open to all, and met legal requirements, whether or not they’d been thoroughly advertised, according to those in charge.

[…]

The newly formed district now has a website and email distribution list but as the pandemic stretches on, the group still offers no way for the public to watch meetings online. It also has pages on FacebookLinkedIn and Twitter. Goshen, as well as a Houston Chronicle environment reporter and an environmental advocate, Bayou City Waterkeeper’s legal director Kristen Schlemmer, were its only three Twitter followers before the Chronicle covered the group Wednesday.

See here and here for the background. I confess I had totally forgotten about this – it’s not like we’ve been in a low-news environment lately, but still – but I am now a Twitter follower of the GCPD, whose count was up to 119 including me as of Monday evening. I hope that whatever business the conduct going forward, it’s better publicized and better covered. This is a big deal, and we deserve to know what they’re up to.

The Ike Dike is still a work in progress

I’ll be honest, I thought we were further along than this.

Members of Texas’ congressional delegation are gearing up for a “marathon” effort to secure funding for a long-sought barrier to protect the Texas Gulf Coast from catastrophic storm surge.

That’s because it’s unlikely much, if any, of the resiliency funding in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law this month will go toward the $29 billion project.

The effort will begin in earnest next year, when Texans in both chambers will push to include federal authorization for the so-called “Ike Dike” in a massive water resources bill that Congress passes every two years. But members of the delegation are bracing for what will likely be a long, difficult push for as much as $18 billion in federal funding.

“This is going to develop over a number of years,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, told Hearst Newspapers. “This is going to be a marathon.”

Cornyn said he doesn’t anticipate trouble getting the federal OK for the project in the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, a biennial, typically bipartisan bill that helps pay for flood mitigation infrastructure across the country.

But the water bill typically doesn’t pass Congress until fall or winter, and it isn’t expected to include funding for the coastal spine.

“That’s going to be a heavy lift because, unfortunately, it’s easier to get money after a natural disaster than it is to prevent one,” Cornyn said.

[…]

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget is preparing to present the project to Congress for authorization and appropriations, said Lynda Yezzi, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps.

Members of the Texas delegation earlier this year had hoped to get a jump on funding as they pushed to include a dedicated stream of money for coastal resiliency measures like the Ike Dike in the infrastructure bill.

“Now is the time to be innovative and strategic and to spend our resources preparing, in partnership with our local stakeholders and capable federal partners,” Texas members of Congress led by U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat, wrote to leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in May.

That didn’t happen. Instead the package included funding for $47 billion for a wide range of resiliency projects, including coastal projects, but also to help brace against flooding, droughts and wildfires and bolster cybersecurity.

The bill also included about $9.6 billion in funding for the Army Corps, which is overseeing the project. But the Army Corps has a deep backlog that currently includes more than $100 billion worth of work.

“This is why we need to continue to advocate for more opportunities,” Fletcher said in an interview with Hearst Newspapers.

Fletcher said the resiliency funding in the $1 trillion infrastructure package — some of which is targeted to states that have been affected by federally declared disasters, including Texas — is a “good start.” But she said the delegation needs to continue to push for a dedicated funding stream for coastal resiliency projects.

Looking at my last post, I see that we were just at the “presentation of the finalized plan” part of the process, and that getting funding was next. Which is where we are, and at least there appears to be a pathway from here. But we’re still years out from any reasonable expectation that construction will begin, and that’s an awful lot of risk to bear in the meantime. Sure hope our luck holds out.

The final Ike Dike plan

It’s taken a long time to get to this point.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released the final version of its Coastal Texas Study, which examines a proposed coastal barrier to protect the Houston region against storm surge. The report’s completion marks a significant step for a concept that has taken years to develop. It began with the early imaginings of a Texas A&M professor, who designed a so-called “Ike Dike” to protect against devastating surge such as that seen on Bolivar Peninsula from Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Environmental advocates, regional planners and concerned residents are among those who have offered feedback on various project drafts. The details and big picture have been argued every which way. Now begins a years-long process before it can be built, leaving the region and the Houston Ship Channel still vulnerable to hurricanes as the design is sorted out and funding secured.

Here’s what you need to know now:

You can click over to read the report itself and the Chron summary. A few things have changed along the way, but the basics are still all there. The study also includes a final environmental impact statement, if you want to know more about that. The Army Corps of Engineers will sign off on the plan and send it on to Congress on or before October 12, at which point the question of funding this project, which has a $29 billion price tag, can begin in earnest. I have no idea at this point if Ike Dike funding will be part of the budget reconciliation process – I don’t think it was in the Senate’s infrastructure bill, but I could be wrong about that. I can’t wait to hear what excuse Ted Cruz will come up with to vote against this.

Another catastrophe averted, for us

Sooner or later our luck is going to run out.

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.

We still have half of hurricane season to go

Don’t get distracted.

Don’t be lulled by the quiet start to this year’s hurricane season in Texas. NOAA is maintaining its forecast for an above-average year and has upped the number of storms it’s expecting.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday there could be 15 to 21 named storms. Between seven and 10 of those could become hurricanes and three to five could be major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher, according to the agency’s Climate Prediction Center.

It had previously predicted 13 to 20 named storms, including six to 10 hurricanes and three to five major hurricanes.

Although no storms have reached Texas, NOAA said there have been five named storms this year. Hurricane Elsa became the earliest fifth named storm on record.

“After a record-setting start, the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season does not show any signs of relenting as it enters the peak months ahead,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in a news release.

This time last year, there had been nine named storms. But 2020 was a record-breaking year that ultimately saw 30 named storms.

The NOAA press release is here. Some years we’ve gotten lucky, some years less so. We have not faced the doomsday “big hurricane comes straight up I-45” scenario yet, one for which the Ike Dike will hopefully someday be made for, but that day is out there somewhere. We hope it’s not this year, at least. Stock up on bottled water and batteries and have an escape plan as needed.

Hurricane season is (almost) upon us

Are you ready?

Be prepared for another busier-than-normal Atlantic hurricane season, NOAA warned Thursday.

The agency is forecasting 13 to 20 named storms. Between six and 10 of those could become hurricanes and three to five could be major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher. Hurricane season starts June 1.

This forecast follows a record-breaking 2020 with 30 named storms (the initial forecast was 13-19 named storms). Of those 30 storms, 13 became hurricanes and six were classified as major hurricanes. Laura, Eta and Iota were retired from the list of hurricane names due to the damages and fatalities they caused.

“It was a mere six months ago that the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record ended,” Ben Friedman, acting NOAA administrator, said during a news conference, “and here we are now on the cusp of a new hurricane season.”

This year is not expected to be as active as 2020, but there are several layered conditions causing the “above-normal” forecast for 2021, said Matthew Rosencrans, a meteorologist at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

One is a warm phase of sea surface temperature in the North Atlantic Ocean. The sea’s surface temperature has cool and warm phases that may last 20 to 40 years, a natural occurrence that has been happening for at least 1,000 years. This current warm phase, which began in 1995, has favored more, stronger and longer-lasting storms.

Adding to this is a stronger west African monsoon. Disturbances that become tropical storms often come from Africa, and a stronger monsoon (more moisture being pulled into Western Africa) means these disturbances are better positioned to become tropical storms or hurricanes.

NOAA also expects that there will be weaker vertical wind shear and a neutral phase of El Nino, with the possibility of La Niña returning later this year. These provide conditions more favorable for storms to develop whereas their opposites (strong vertical wind shear and El Niño) could impede storm development.

See here for some background. As noted before, there will be no more Greek letter names for overflow storms, but maybe we’ll be lucky and stop at or before Wanda – the full list of names for 2021 is here. It’s not how busy the season is, it’s more about how many storms come to shore. Be prepared and hope for the best.

And when I say “be prepared”, I mean now. There’s no time to lose.

A disturbance near Bermuda is likely to become a subtropical cyclone on Friday, which would make it the first named Atlantic storm of the year, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The system was located about 800 miles east of Bermuda Thursday morning. It was forecast to move over warmer waters Thursday night, with a 70 percent chance of forming into a subtropical cyclone in the next two days.

National Hurricane Center forecasters have been issuing regular updates on tropical weather since May 15 — earlier than usual. Hurricane season doesn’t officially start until June 1.

Feels like they’re going to move the “official” start of hurricane season up a bit at some point, doesn’t it?

More than one way to fund the Ike Dike

As long as it gets funded, that’s what matters.

When President Joe Biden proposed a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure bill, some Texas officials had high hopes that it might include funding for the long-awaited “Ike Dike” project to protect the Houston-Galveston region from catastrophic storm surge.

However, the Army Corps of Engineers is pursuing another funding route for the $26 billion project.

Col. Timothy Vail, commander for the Corps’ Galveston district, said the agency is adhering to a methodical federal process as it works toward completing the chief engineer’s report on the massive coastal barrier, siloed from Washington’s political headwinds.

The goal, Vail said, is for that report to be ready for funding through the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, a biennial, typically bipartisan bill that helps pay for flood mitigation infrastructure across the country.

“Congress would have a substantial amount of time to review this report, potentially have hearings on this report, ask questions on their report, both formally and informally before the Water Resource Development Act (of 2022)” was drafted, Vail said in an interview at the Corps’ Galveston headquarters.

Members of Texas’ congressional delegation are exploring whether the infrastructure bill could at least partially fund the project, but time is a factor with Biden aiming to get a bill passed by this summer. The Corps is still months away from officially putting the project on the table for congressional funding.

Corps officials said they are sorting through a final round of public comments as they target late August or early September for release of the final report. The agency will first submit the project for review to the governor’s office and federal and state officials. Then it goes to Congress for consideration.

[…]

Vail did not dismiss the possibility that Congress could choose to fund the barrier through other forms of legislation, but he said “largely, Congress needs a (chief engineer’s) report to authorize” funding.

“The important thing is the due process,” Vail said. “It’s not for me to tell Congress what they can or can’t do. Clearly, it’s within their authority to authorize (funding for the coastal barrier) outside of a Water Resource Development Act.”

Rocio Cruz, a spokeswoman for [Rep. Lizzie] Fletcher, clarified that she is pushing to create a funding stream for coastal resiliency projects such as the Ike Dike.

“She’s aware that the (Ike Dike) final report isn’t going to be ready for the American Jobs Plan, but we wanted to make sure that there’s a federal funding mechanism in place for when that is available,” Cruz said.

See here for some background. The reference to Rep. Fletcher is about her statement that she will push for Ike Dike funding in the infrastructure bill. I will admit, I did not know about the Water Resource Development Act, and I do not know why there was no action to leverage that before now. Maybe the plan just wasn’t ready yet, I don’t know. Whatever the case, it makes sense to pursue both options. We’ve come this far, let’s not leave anything on the table.

Which reminds me, there’s also a third option:

SB1660 is noted in that first link above. Like I said, pursue every option.

The infrastructure bill and Texas flooding

It’s more than just the Ike Dike.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $50 billion to fortify states against future extreme weather events such as the droughts, floods and hurricanes that caused up to $200 billion in damage in Texas over the past decade — a tally that includes six droughts, five hurricane landfalls and five floods that each left at least $1 billion in damage behind.

Texas was hammered by 67 major weather disasters from 2010 to 2020, more than any other state in the nation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fifty-nine of those were billion-dollar disasters — more than double the 25 costly storms the state saw in the decade prior as major weather events have become increasingly common.

The NOAA data does not include the deadly winter storm that killed nearly 200 Texans and caused billions in damage. The state was bracing for more severe weather on Monday with Gov. Greg Abbott ordering rescue boats, helicopters and other resources to stand at the ready for spring storms expected to bring heavy winds and hail.

The storm damage figures are a key piece of the White House’s efforts to sell Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which administration officials stepped up on Monday as they released breakdowns of needs in each state.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pointed to the winter storms that left millions of Texans without power for days as an example of the need to make infrastructure more resilient to increasingly severe weather.

“We saw what happened in Texas — and that’s an example of a resilience problem,” Buttigieg said. “It’s not a fundamental technology problem. Natural gas plants were part of what failed not because they couldn’t conceivably work, but because there wasn’t weatherization … Things like wind power can operate in sub-zero conditions — I’ve seen it myself in Iowa — but only if you build it in a resilient way, which was not necessarily the case in Texas.”

[…]

In Texas, the Biden administration says the plan could help fix more than 800 bridges and over 19,400 miles of highway in poor condition, expand broadband to the estimated 12 percent of Texans who live in areas without access to it and increase affordable housing options for more than 1.7 million renters in Texas are who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, among other things.

It’s the most detail the administration has offered so far on what Biden’s proposal could send to Texas — and could be as much detail as the White House will offer until the plan becomes law. The administration has said its goal is to establish competitive grant programs to dole out much of the funding, meaning Texas and its cities and counties would have to make their case for projects.

No explicit discussion of the Ike Dike yet, but one has to assume it’s in scope. Preventing a hurricane from wiping out a bunch of refineries is a matter of national security (not to mention environmental protection), and it has always needed to be treated as such. We’re in the middle of a dumb debate about what counts as “infrastructure”, and of course the Republicans, led by Ted “Just get yourself on a plane to Cancun” Cruz, will reject every last penny of this because, well, I have no idea why. Doesn’t really matter anyway. Go back and look at that dollar amount for the past few years’ worth of emergencies in Texas and ask yourself why we wouldn’t want to do something about it right now. I’m sure you can think of a better reason for action than Ted Cruz can for sitting on his thumbs.

First look at the 2021 hurricane season

Yeah, it’s getting to be that time of year. From Space City Weather:

Good morning. The most reputable hurricane season forecasting service, led by Phil Klotzbach at Colorado State University, has released its first outlook for the 2021 Atlantic season. The forecast calls for above normal activity (see table below) with 17 named storms instead of the more typical 12; eight hurricanes instead of six; and about 50 percent total more activity, in terms of the duration and intensity of tropical systems, as measured by accumulated cyclone energy.

This outlook is consistent with other predictions, already released, in calling for a busier than normal season. What I like about Klotzbach’s forecast is that he’s very clear about his methodology—using a combination of statistical modeling, and historical correlations between Spring-time weather conditions and hurricane activity later in the year. Klotzbach also has a reasonable track record.

With that said, seasonal hurricane forecasts are far from perfect. I think, generally, we can expect a busier Atlantic season, but we’re almost certainly not going to see a brute of a year like 2020. Moreover, the chance of the Houston area being directly affected by serious tropical weather (in terms of floods, winds, or surge) is pretty low. Historically, the region only sees a significant storm about once a decade or so. Therefore, while it certainly is time to begin planning for the 2021 Atlantic season, I very much do not want you to start worrying or obsessing about it. Matt and I will, of course, be here every step of the way, and we’ll be releasing a new app before the June 1 beginning of the season to keep you informed.

“Not as bad as 2020” is a low bar to clear, but we have to start somewhere. There will be other forecasts, and that will give us a fuller picture of what is expected. Also of importance is predicting the development and path and severity of hurricanes and big rainstorms, and towards that end the NOAA rolled out a new model last month.

“You just get a better forecast,” said Lance Wood, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Houston/Galveston office. “The day-to-day reliability of the model forecasting would be better, though it would probably be more noticeable in something like an extreme rainfall threat.”

The upgrades include a variety of changes. For one, the Global Forecast System (an atmospheric model) can now interact with a global wave model. Running these models together will extend wave forecasts to 16 days, up from the current 10-day forecasts. This is particularly helpful to mariners planning long-distance voyages, Wood said.

The upgrades also provide a more detailed look at the atmosphere at various vertical levels. Previously, the model showed data at 64 different levels in the atmosphere. Now, it will show 127 different levels. This type of information can help provide more accurate cloud coverage forecasts — a weather outlook that’s often requested by general aviation pilots who want to know how thick the clouds will be.

And finally, the new-and-improved Global Forecast System will be able to pull more data from satellites that provide weather observations and planes that measure wind, temperature and moisture, Wood said.

In other words, we’ll have more time in advance of a hurricane to know that it’s coming and to prep for it. We need all the help we can get with that. Stay alert, be prepared, don’t panic, and we’ll get through this.

The infrastructure bill and the Ike Dike

This is encouraging.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan sure seems to be considering building the Ike Dike.

His $2 trillion plan includes improving and strengthening infrastructure in coastal areas most vulnerable during hurricane season.

Biden pitched part of the American Jobs Plan on Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

The Biden Administration’s plan includes investing in improving “coastal resilience to sea-level rise and hurricanes.” While specific projects were not named in the plan, the Biden administration says the American Jobs Plan will “protect and, where necessary, restore nature-based infrastructure,” which could include funding the Ike Dike.

[…]

State Rep. Gene Wu, who represents part of Houston, circulated a letter to Biden last week requesting federal support for the Ike Dike. Mayor Sylvester Turner and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee have also expressed support for the coastal spine.

The Houston Chronicle’s Benjamin Wermund reports that Biden’s plan also includes $50 billion to improve infrastructure strength against hurricanes and other natural disasters, especially in lower-income areas. Biden’s administration used the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey as an example of the need for increased federal support and infrastructure development.

“People of color and low-income people are more likely to live in areas most vulnerable to flooding and other climate change-related weather events. They also are less likely to have the funds to prepare for and recover from extreme weather events,” a statement from the White House says. “In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely as white residents to report experiencing an income shock with no recovery support.”

I’ll have more to say about the infrastructure plan, which is not yet a bill but an outline and a list of priorities right now, because if it is realized in its full form it would truly do a lot for Texas. That definitely includes the Ike Dike, mostly because it would solve how to pay for it, which I noted a few weeks ago.

To its credit, the Lege is at least thinking about that issue.

A proposed bill in the Texas Legislature would create a regional district with the authority to tax and issue bonds to raise money to build and maintain a $26 billion storm surge barrier on the southeast Texas coast.

The bill, SB1160, is sponsored by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, with a companion bill in the state House sponsored by Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston. The bills would establish the Gulf Coast Protection District, an entity comprised of members from Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties.

The district would be empowered to operate the long-proposed coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” as well as issue bonds and impose taxes to maintain the project. It would also have eminent domain power to seize property or land “for the exercise of the district’s functions,” according to the bill’s text.

During a Monday meeting of the Senate Water, Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee, Taylor noted that the bill is vital to the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed coastal barrier project, which aims to protect the region from the kind of catastrophic storm surge experienced during Hurricane Ike in 2008.

“This is a very important bill, and not just not just for the state of Texas, but for our country,” Taylor said. “The number one supplier of military aviation fuel is in this area. So if you’re talking about national security, this area gets wiped out and we don’t have the aviation fuel, that would be a security problem. It’s our number one military port. And it’s our number one petrochemical complex.”

[…]

A final report on the coastal barrier study will be completed in April, according to the Texas General Land Office, which is co-sponsoring the study. The report will released to the public in September and submitted to Congress for final approval.

The Gulf Coast Protection District would be governed by a board of 11 directors appointed by the governor in consultation with the respective commissioners courts from each county. Each of the five counties would have one representative except for Harris County, which, because of its larger population, would have two. The district would also include one representative for the regional ports; one representative for the environmental sector; one representative for the regional industrial complex; and one representative for the cities within the five counties.

The district would have to hold a vote among its member counties before it began collecting property taxes, but will be able to issue bonds.

I don’t know how likely this bill is to pass, but I tend to agree with Campos that this is at best an unwieldy mechanism for funding it. Read that last paragraph and ask yourself how likely it is that the member counties of this district are actually able to raise property taxes for this purpose. For more on what’s in the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, see Slate and the Trib.

There sure were a lot of named storms this year

Thirty of them, in fact.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season had a record 30 named storms. Twelve made landfall in the continental U.S., including five in Louisiana.

Hurricane season ends Nov. 30 (that’s next week, so fingers crossed there isn’t a Thanksgiving surprise), but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its end-of-season report on Tuesday.

“The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season ramped up quickly and broke records across the board,” Neil Jacobs, acting NOAA administrator, said in a news release.

There were a record nine named storms from May through July. Then 10 named storms formed in September; the most for any month on record.

On Sept. 18, Tropical Storm Wilfred exhausted the pre-selected 21 names for this Atlantic hurricane season. For only the second time in history, the Greek alphabet was required to name subsequent storms.

Hurricane Laura was the strongest storm to make landfall in the U.S., coming ashore near Cameron, La., on Aug. 27 as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.

Nicaragua was hit with two Category 4 storms: Hurricane Eta on Nov. 3 with maximum sustained winds of 140 mph and Hurricane Iota on Nov. 16 with maximum sustained winds near 155 mph.

A “normal” year has 12 named storms. We’re in a period of warmer sea surface temperatures, and that’s a phase that can last a couple of decades. So it’s probably not going to get much better any time soon, and that’s before we bring up that pesky climate change thing. And the US got off relatively easy while places like Nicaragua got slammed. Since Donald Trump couldn’t find Nicaragua on a map if you drew him an arrow pointing to it with a red Sharpie, let’s hope that the Biden administration will offer some support and relief. And also that we’ll get started on building that Ike Dike. Here’s a timeline if you want to relive the 2020 storm season.

Who cares how much it will cost to build the Ike Dike?

Imagine how much it will cost to recover from a catastrophic hurricane whose storm surge could have been mitigated by the Ike Dike. You know, like that hurricane from earlier this year that would have done exactly that had it hit 150 miles or so west of where it did hit.

The Army Corps of Engineers has revised its plan for a coastal barrier that would fundamentally alter the southeast Texas coastline, with massive sea gates across the Houston Ship Channel and 43 miles of dunes and renourished beaches spanning Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston.

The newest version of the coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” was released Tuesday by the Corps and Texas General Land Office. While initial estimates said the project would cost as much as $32 billion, officials now peg the cost as $26.2 billion.

The plan incorporates feedback received during a contentious round of public meetings after the original plan was released in October 2018. Many coastal residents and environmentalists balked at a structure that they said could harm ecology and wildlife and tank property values.

But with three major hurricanes narrowly skirting the Houston-Galveston region this year during a particularly active season — 27 named storms — state officials noted that a project on the scale of the coastal barrier would protect the region for decades to come as the climate gets warmer and more volatile.

“The Corps of Engineers recognizes the coast as a extremely vibrant place to live and recognizes, and our metrics in the army show, that the Texas coast is leading economic growth for the nation,” said Mark Havens, deputy land commissioner for the General Land Office. “This hurricane season has given us pause because it’s given us too many close calls not to heed this warning.”

The Corps plans to convene three days of virtual public meetings, beginning Nov. 16. The public comment period will end on Dec. 14, and feedback will be incorporated into the final feasibility report, which the Corps plans to publish in May 2021. The Corps also emphasized interactive web features for the public such as 3-D virtual tours of some of the project’s features and flood impact maps.

Once the study is complete it will be proposed for congressional authorization and funding. If approved, it is expected to take 12 to 20 years to design and construct.

See here for the previous update. We are virtually certain to get a big honking infrastructure/stimulus bill from the Biden administration in its early days, and this project would fit nicely within it. All we need is for the Texas Congressional delegation to do its part. This will take a long time to build, as noted, so the less screwing around we do, the sooner we can get it started. In conclusion:

Indeed.

No, seriously, what are we going to do to prepare for the next Hurricane Laura?

I mean, the next one is coming whether we’re ready or not. We just don’t know when it will be here.

Though the storm ultimately tracked east, sparing Houston, the problem remains: The region is disastrously unready to handle any of the three main threats of an intense hurricane: a high surge, damaging winds and — even three years after Hurricane Harvey — flooding.

While Harvey’s devastating stall over the Houston area has resulted in billions of dollars of investment in flood control infrastructure and new regulations, Laura reminded the region of what a different kind of storm could do.

In its wake, leaders have made impassioned pleas about preparing for when — not if — that storm does arrive. Most notably, they have ramped up calls for federal funding on a so-called “coastal spine,” a system of levees, gates and dunes first proposed after Hurricane Ike in 2008, to protect the region from a storm surge.

Those plans, though, remain mired in the slog of the federal approval process. The kind of political will and cohesion needed to fast-track such infrastructure typically only forms after disasters, not before.

[…]

There are signs the region has reached an inflection point on the need to protect against that threat. A growing consensus among local officials around the effects of climate change has shifted the public policy debate to figuring out which infrastructure projects will help stave off its worst effects, and at what cost.

The proposed coastal spine, a 71-mile-long barrier system to protect the southeast Texas coast, has received the most attention since it was taken up by the Army Corps of Engineers in October 2018.

The plan is an outgrowth of the “Ike Dike” concept first pitched more than a decade ago by William Merrell, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston. It includes a series of gates that stretch the two-mile length of Bolivar Road, twin rows of 14-foot-high sand dunes across Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, a ring levee around Galveston’s city center and investments in ecosystem restoration.

The price tag has been put at $23 billion to $32 billion, with the dunes and sea gate at the ship channel alone costing up to $18 billion of that. It is in the midst of a five-year design and study process and is on track to be sent to Congress for final approval in May 2021.

“Quite frankly, we need it yesterday,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week. “We’re running out of lives, so to speak.”

Even on the most optimistic timeline, the coastal barrier is 10 to 15 years from becoming a reality. With the Houston-Galveston region a perennial target during the Atlantic hurricane season, there is a growing urgency to find a more expedient, cheaper solution.

The Galveston Bay Park Plan, first proposed by the Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center in 2015, includes similar protection features as the coastal spine, but adds a mid-bay barrier island system with a 25-foot wall that would protect the industrial complexes and densely populated areas in the west and northwest sections of Galveston Bay.

Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney and co-director of the SSPEED Center, says the plan could provide vital protection a lot sooner than the coastal spine, but that it also could complement that barrier. He estimates that if allowed to use dredging spoils from the planned widening of the Houston Ship Channel to build the barrier islands, the project could be completed by 2027 at a fraction of the cost of the coastal spine — an estimated $5 billion to $7 billion.

“You have a coastal defense and that’s your first line of defense and then you come in with your in-bay defense, that is really the one that can protect against your bigger storms,” Blackburn said. “It’s very much almost like thinking in a military sense of how do you defend against an enemy invasion?”

See here and here for some background. I’m of the opinion that we just need to start building something, and that the price tag is a mirage, because the federal government can absolutely afford this. What we can’t afford is to sit around on our asses until the devastating storm we’ve been warned about for years comes and wipes our unprepared selves right off the map.

Just build the effing Ike Dike already

Enough waiting around.

As twin hurricanes converge on the Gulf Coast this week, including one with a decent chance of affecting the Houston-Galveston region, a highly ambitious proposal for protecting the area from a massive storm continues to slowly grind its way through the federal approval process.

Twelve years after Hurricane Ike leveled much of the Upper Texas Coast, federal officials are still studying the effects of a proposed coastal barrier and looking for ways to pay for a project now estimated to cost $31 billion. The next draft of a plan is due out in October.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ current plan to build a 71-mile barrier system to protect the southeast Texas coast has changed significantly since the Corps’ first proposal in October 2018. That proposal — a system of levees and gates stretching from High Island to San Luis Pass — was a close approximation of the “Ike Dike” concept first touted by William Merrell, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston, more than a decade ago.

That original plan called for the construction of levees that would run parallel to FM 3005 on Galveston Island and Texas 87 on Bolivar Peninsula but behind the dune line. This plan for harder barrier would have left thousands of homes adjacent to the beach exposed to flooding and likely required extensive eminent domain buyouts.

The backlash to that original proposal sent the Corps back to the drawing board. By late 2019, the Corps had settled on a double dune system — a field of 12- and 14-foot dunes, approximately 185 feet wide, with a runway of 250 feet of renourished beach leading to the Gulf of Mexico.

[…]

Kelly Burks-Copes, the Army Corps’ project manager for the coastal barrier proposal, emphasized the agency is working with the data that the federal budget allows for at this time. She noted the Army Corps is still studying how ship traffic would navigate proposed sea gates crossing Galveston Bay and whether the gates would allow for minimal tidal flow between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. All of that information will be in the next draft of the barrier plan.

“We still have to finish the environmental impact analysis, and the (barrier) footprints are gonna change slightly as the real estate gross appraisal finishes,” Burks-Copes said in February, referring to eminent domain buyouts that could be required to build the dunes.

See here for the background. I agree there has been a long debate about how to build an Ike Dike, with a number of possible variations and some passionate advocacy on all sides. I do want to make sure we do not have a negative effect on the environment in building it. But at some point we gotta start building. And for crying out loud, don’t come at me with concerns about cost, not after the Republicans spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for the rich and however many trillions on (very necessary and still insufficient) COVID recovery. The Ike Dike is peanuts next to that, and it’s vitally necessary. When the draft plan is submitted to Congress next May, there needs to be a funding bill attached to it. Get this done.

Hope now, support relief efforts next

This is so, so bad. And it’s terrifying to realize how much worse it could have been.

With winds topping 150 mph, Hurricane Laura is approaching Category 5 status as it barrels toward the Texas-Louisiana border.

As of 7 p.m., the system was located about 120 miles southeast of Port Arthur, moving toward the coast at about 15 mph. It remains course to make landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border around midnight, according to the National Weather Service. A roughly 150-mile stretch of coastline from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, is expected to take the brunt of the storm’s impact.

Wind speeds and water levels are currently rising along the northwest Gulf coast. Sustained winds of 39 mph were reported at 6 p.m. along the southern-most edge of the Louisiana coast. Heavy rains also are beginning to spread onshore. The hurricane center said “possible tornadoes” were sprouting from Laura’s outer bands at 7 p.m. over southeastern Louisiana and extreme southwestern Mississippi.

Regions directly in Hurricane Laura’s path and east of the storm face catastrophic consequences from what the National Hurricane Center called an “extremely dangerous” storm expected to ravage portions of the northwest Gulf coast with “unsurvivable” storm surge, extreme wind and widespread flash flooding.

A tornado watch is expected to last through 9 p.m. for areas east of the Houston area and most of the Louisiana coast. The pressure around the storm has dropped to about 940 mb. Outer swaths of rain have been whipping across inland areas, with gusty winds and downpours expected in Liberty and Chambers counties.

How bad is Hurricane Laura? This bad:

Never good to be grouped with Katrina and Rita. And as bad as this is, shift this thing 150 miles west for a direct hit on Houston, and, well, I don’t even want to think about it. There are plenty of articles out now about how bad that would be. We need the Ike Dike ASAP, but we need more than that, too. We’re sitting on dynamite and playing with matches until we take this seriously.

Here comes Laura

Be prepared.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo urged residents to prepare for a hurricane as the track and intensity of Tropical Storm Laura remains uncertain.

She said the greatest threat posed by Laura likely would be high winds and a storm surge, and urged the public not to make comparisons to historical storms.

“This is not Harvey, this is not Imelda, this is not Allison. This is Laura,” Hidalgo said. “Every storm is different, and we urge folks not to use any prior storm as a template for what could or will happen.”

Laura is expected to strengthen to a hurricane Tuesday, possibly as strong as Category 2, before making landfall in southeast Texas or southwest Louisiana on Wednesday, the National Weather Service predicted Monday afternoon.

Hidalgo said residents should prepare hurricane kits and check which evacuation zone they live in.

The mayor of Port Arthur ordered an evacuation beginning Tuesday morning for the 55,000 residents of that city on the Texas-Louisiana border. City of Galveston leaders issued a voluntary evacuation for residents in low-lying areas and on the west end of the seawall.

Houston and Harris County have no present plans to order an evacuation. Hidalgo said residents in coastal areas should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, as an evacuation order likely would come sometime Tuesday.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said residents should be prepared for high traffic on freeways heading away from the coast. He asked residents to stay off the roads if possible to keep evacuation routes clear and secure anything outside their homes that could blow away in high winds.

Generally speaking, you run from flooding and you shelter from winds. Unless you’ve been told to evacuate, you should probably prepare to shelter in place. In the meantime, stay calm and check Space City Weather for the most up to date forecasts.

Hurricane season is just getting started

Just, you know, because we don’t have enough to be anxious about.

Already smashing records, this year’s hyperactive Atlantic hurricane season is about to get even nastier, forecasters predict. In the coming months, they expect to run out of traditional hurricane names and see about twice as much storm activity as a normal year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday upped its seasonal forecast, now predicting a far-above-average 19 to 25 named storms — seven to 11 of them to become hurricanes and three to six of those to become major hurricanes with winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph). That’s a few more storms than the agency’s May forecast. The agency increased the chance of an above average hurricane season from 60% to 85%.

“It looks like this season could be one of the more active in the historical record,” but it’s unlikely to be beat 2005’s 28 named storms because the oceans were warmer and other conditions were more conducive to storm formation 15 years ago, said NOAA lead forecaster Gerry Bell.

This year’s forecast of up to 25 is the highest number NOAA has ever predicted, beating the 21 predicted for 2005, Bell said.

Colorado State University, which pioneered hurricane season forecasts decades ago, on Wednesday amped its forecast to 24 named storms, 12 hurricanes and 5 major hurricanes — all higher than their June forecast.

[…]

An average year, based on 1981 to 2010 data, is 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes. Lead Colorado State forecaster Phil Klotzbach said all the factors that cause hurricane seasons to be busy are dialed up, including increased storminess in Africa that seeds the biggest hurricanes, warmer water that fuels storms and reduced high level winds that kill storms.

In a normal year, about 90% of storm activity comes after August 6, with mid-August to mid-October as peak season. So far this year, there have been nine named storms, with most setting a record for being early. The most destructive so far has been this month’s Hurricane Isaias which killed at least nine people and left millions of people without power.

“Nine storms to this date is crazy,” Klotzbach said. Since 1995, when the Atlantic started a more active period for hurricanes, the average season has seen 12 named storms forming after August 5, he said.

The number of storms don’t matter as much as where they go, MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel said, noting the busy 2010 hurricane season that barely touched the United States.

While the predictions are about the number of storms and don’t say where they strike, Klotzbach’s forecast says more storms increases the chance of another U.S. landfall. It says there’s a 74% chance that yet another storm will hit the U.S. coastline somewhere, with a 49% chance of a hit on the East Coast and Florida peninsula and a 48% chance of a hit on the Gulf Coast.

Most of this year’s storms so far have been weak, decapitated by high level winds and dry air, but Klotzbach said that’s about to change.

Sea surface temperatures in the eastern Atlantic are nearly 2 degrees (1 degree Celsius) warmer than normal. That not only provides more fuel for storms but changes air pressure and winds to make favorable conditions for storms to form and strengthen, he said.

You can see the NOAA’s release here. Just a reminder, 2005 was the fun year that brought us Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, among others. As noted, it’s not the number of hurricanes but where they go and what they do that really matters. Then again, the more hurricanes there are, the greater the chances that one will come your way. Who feels any confidence in Donald Trump’s FEMA to respond when that happens? Yeah. Stock up on supplies, have an evacuation plan just in case, and hope like hell these storms mostly blow out at sea.

Hurricanes and pandemics

Summertime in the Gulf Coast, y’all.

Dealing with multiple disaster threats at the same time is nothing new for Francisco Sanchez.

As a 15-year emergency management veteran for Harris County, Sanchez understands the anxiety tugging at local officials wary of preparing for possible hurricanes while also dealing with the everyday reality of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sanchez also appreciates the instinct that some emergency management officials have to be as detailed as possible in anticipating all sorts of disaster scenarios when social distancing may still be recommended. But as counterintuitive as it might seem, details, he said, can be the enemy of the good when it comes to hurricane preparation.

“Whether you’ve done one disaster or dozens, you know that no plan fully survives its encounter with reality,” said Sanchez, the deputy coordinator for the Harris County Office of Emergency Management. “Develop concepts of operations that allow you to be flexible and scalable. It will allow you to cover more ground at a time where time is scarce, planning resources are scarce and response resources are scarce.”

The 2020 hurricane season, which [started] Monday, is poised to be significantly different than prior years given how the coronavirus outbreak has altered everyday life, including basic disaster planning. The stay-at-home orders that were in place prior to May 1 as well as current social distancing guidelines have forced many emergency management officials to scale back and adjust their typical hurricane season outreach.

Cities and counties that held annual town-hall meetings dispensing advice on evacuation planning and hurricane kits are now planning to do so virtually. First response agencies are adapting rescue protocols to include personal protective equipment. Medical centers and hospitals have to grapple with the possibility of having to evacuate coronavirus patients from hospitals. And residents are being advised to put together hurricane kits now so as not to inundate retail stores with large crowds in the days ahead of a storm.

“Restock that hurricane kit — now is the time to do it when we can maintain that social distancing very easily,” said Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District.

As a reminder, NOAA is predicting a busy hurricane season. Indeed, there is already a tropical depression in the Gulf that could possibly develop into a big rainmaking event in our area. What we all know is that it only takes one storm to make it a bad year. Do restock your bottled water and batteries, and as always pay attention to what the folks who know what they’re talking about have to say. Unless of course that interferes with your god-given constitutional right of FREEDOM, in which case go right ahead and drive on into the storm and show us that you can’t be pushed around – well, not by anything less than 100 MPH winds, anyway. Hope that works out for you.

Is it finally going to be Infrastructure Week?

I have three things to say about this:

Lawmakers have been talking about striking a deal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure for years. It might take a pandemic to finally get them to do it, and Texas officials are already working on their wish lists, with ports, highways, high-speed internet and more potentially on the line.

There’s growing talk of tackling infrastructure as the next step in Congress to stave off economic collapse from the coronavirus outbreak, following the $2 trillion stimulus package that passed last month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday that House Democrats are beginning work now on the next package, including “bold action to renew America’s infrastructure.”

President Donald Trump appears to be on board.

“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill,” Trump tweeted. “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”

In Texas that could mean a massive injection of federal funding to rebuild highways and bridges, expand ports and brace waterways for future floods. The federal push could also expand much-needed broadband — which 2 million Texans don’t have — with many Americans now stuck at home, relying on the internet for work, school, telemedicine and more.

“Getting the infrastructure bill done makes a lot of sense,” said U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It will be a really important driver to get our country up and running and back to work once we’re on the other side of COVID-19.”

[…]

In the Houston area, planned widening of Interstate 10 in Fort Bend and Waller counties could be at the top of a priority list of projects, along with expanding Texas 146 from two to three lanes in each direction to relieve a well-known truck bottleneck.

Metropolitan Transit Authority has a long list of projects, but also is still drafting much of its $7.5 billion plan, making it unclear whether Houston’s costliest train and bus projects are ready to reap federal dollars.

Then there are the ports and the Intercoastal Waterway, which will likely be at the top of the list for any major federal infrastructure package, said Ed Emmett, the former Harris County Judge who is now a senior fellow at Rice University.

The Houston Ship Channel needs to be deepened and widened, for one thing. Officials with the Port of Houston have been lobbying for federal help for the $1 billion project that would allow the nation’s busiest waterway to accommodate two-way traffic.

[…]

Emmett said he’ll believe there’s federal infrastructure money coming when he sees it.

“I’m a total cynic when it comes to this,” he said. “Anytime there’s a crisis Congress always says infrastructure — ‘we’re going to go spend on infrastructure’ — and it never happens.”

1. What Ed Emmett says. Past attempts at Infrastructure Week have failed because Donald Trump has the attention span of a toddler who’s been guzzling Red Bull. Show me a bill that at least one chamber has on track for hearings and a vote, and get back to me.

2. If we do get as far as writing a bill, then please let’s limit the amount of money we throw at TxDOT for the purpose of widening highways even more. Fund all of Metro’s projects. Get Lone Star Rail, hell even the distant dream of a high speed rail line from Monterrey to Oklahoma City, off the ground. Build overpasses or underpasses at as many freight rail traffic crossings as possible. Make broadband internet truly universal – hell, make it a public utility and break up the local monopolies on broadband. You get the idea.

3. Ike Dike. Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike. Seriously, any gazillion-dollar infrastructure plan that doesn’t fully fund some kind of Gulf Coast flood mitigation scheme is not worth the paper it’s printed on. Ike Dike or GTFO.

It’s still supposed to be a busy hurricane season

Hurricane season technically lasts until December 1, but this is the peak of it, so keep paying attention.

Don’t be lulled by a quiet June and July. The real Atlantic hurricane season is about to kick off.

The hurricane season generally runs from June 1 to the end of November. But the next six weeks — “the season within a season” — is regularly the most dangerous and active time for storms to develop in the Atlantic, said Dennis Feltgen, spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Only two named storms have developed in the Atlantic so far this summer. Dry, dusty air from Africa’s Sahara robbed potential storms of moisture, and wind shear spurred by the El Nino climate systems ripped apart budding storms. Now, those brakes on hurricane development are gone.

The result: “A big change in the pattern over the Atlantic, going from a very lackluster quiet weather pattern to a much more active one,” said Dan Kottlowski, the lead hurricane forecaster at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. “We are thinking this season will be back-loaded.”

Last week, the U.S. National Weather Service forecast 10 to 17 named storms in the Atlantic. Last year, there were 15, including hurricanes Florence and Michael that killed a combined 96 people and caused more than $49 billion in damage. A storm is named when it reaches tropical storm strength, with maximum sustained winds of at least 74 miles per hour.

You know the drill by now. Tune in to Space City Weather and stay on top of what you need to know.

The Ike Dike debate continues

There’s more than one way to mitigate against flooding, and it may be best to adopt more than one of them.

For about a decade, two of Texas’ top universities have pushed dueling plans to protect the Houston-Galveston region from hurricanes.

A concept championed by Texas A&M University at Galveston appears to be winning out as the federal and state governments pursue a plan similar to one proposed by A&M oceanographer Bill Merrell in early 2009, months after Hurricane Ike smashed ashore at Galveston Island.

But that project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas General Land Office, which calls for the installation of beachfront sand dunes and massive storm surge barrier gates, won’t become reality for at least 15 years — and probably much longer. That leaves plenty of time for a worst-case hurricane to devastate the densely populated, highly industrialized region — a reality that’s coming into sharper focus as sea levels rise and the ocean warms.

The so-called coastal barrier system also carries a significant price tag — as much as $20 billion — and a significant part of the system may guard against only a modest 100-year storm.

In the meantime, Rice University is pushing a plan that it says could become a reality faster and more cheaply than the coastal barrier system. While the Galveston Bay Park Plan isn’t designed to protect as much land as the coastal barrier system, the chief spokesperson for the university’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center — known as SSPEED — says it would offer a significantly higher level of protection than the coastal barrier system for the most populated and industrialized areas in Houston and Galveston.

The park plan, conceived in 2015, calls for the use of clay dredged from the Houston Ship Channel, where a $1 billion deepening and widening project is in the works to accommodate more and larger ships, to create a 25-foot-tall levee along the shipping lane, which is the nation’s busiest. Additional dredged material would be piled behind it to form parkland. The dike would connect to an existing levee at Texas City, which would be raised to 25 feet from 17 feet.

A significant amount of dredged material has already been disposed of along the channel, forming marshy islands and a wildlife management area. That means it would not have to be built entirely from scratch.

A large storm surge gate — much like ones called for in the coastal barrier system — also would be installed and would be closed only when big storms threatened the area. Like the coastal barrier system, the park plan also calls for a “ring” levee around the city of Galveston to protect it from incoming and outgoing storm surges, the deadliest effects of hurricanes. The new north-south levee, which would cut through Galveston Bay, would be punctuated by smaller gates to allow boats to pass through.

See here for some background on the SSPEED plan, and here for more on the plan that has been selected as the preferred plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The SSPEED alternative is touted by Jim Blackburn, who has been a critic of the Corps’ Ike Dike study. Blackburn says this plan could be done as early as 2027 for $3 billion to $6 billion, which means it could be locally funded; that would also speed up the process, as it would not need to go through so much federal review. It could also be done as a complement to the Ike Dike. The Corps disputes SSPEED’s cost estimate and argues their plan would have a significant environmental impact. I’m not qualified to sort that out, but I do like the idea of having a more nimble plan in place that could get some mitigation going right now, rather than a decade or more from now. Read the story and see what you think.

The Dutch way to mitigate against floods

We can learn a lot from this largely-below-sea-level country.

David Zacek for The Texas Tribune

On a sunny Friday in late May, a jubilant wedding party scrambled to the top of a colossal sand dune in this tiny Dutch beach town for a photoshoot, bridesmaids’ arms flailing as their high heels sunk in. The wedding ceremony had just ended at an outdoor venue nestled behind the six-story mountain of sand, which blocked the view of the North Sea.

At the town’s main strip nearby, a mostly older crowd sipped beers and wine and nibbled on ice cream cones. No one seemed to mind that they couldn’t see the water.

Unlike in the United States, such obscured ocean views are common in the Netherlands, where people aren’t allowed to build homes or businesses directly on the coast — and for good reason. Three of Europe’s major rivers run through the compact country on their way to the ocean, and almost one-third of it lies below sea level, making it extremely vulnerable to deadly storm tides.

The dunes in Noordwijk are part of a world-renowned storm defense system that covers the entirety of the Netherlands’ coastline — much of it hefty enough to protect against a monster, 10,000-year storm. The system has become a beacon for Texas as it looks to guard the eastern flank of the low-lying Houston-Galveston region — home to millions of people and the nation’s largest petrochemical complex — from hurricanes. Despite its vulnerability to deadly storm surges, the upper Texas coast has no comprehensive storm protection system.

That vulnerability became apparent after Hurricane Ike in 2008, when scientists warned that the storm — the costliest to ever hit Texas at the time — could have been much worse for the Houston-Galveston region if it hadn’t changed course at the last minute. And although 2017’s Hurricane Harvey made landfall much farther down the coast, its torrential rains put large swaths of Houston underwater and drove home the widespread damage a hurricane could inflict on the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The Netherlands experienced a similar reckoning after a freak storm in 1953.

That North Sea flood, which the Dutch simply call “the disaster,” breached neglected and war-battered dikes, inundated an area bigger than the city of Houston and drowned more than 1,800 people — a death toll nearly identical to that of Hurricane Katrina after it swamped New Orleans and parts of Mississippi. Within weeks, a special Dutch commission initiated a sweeping public works program that it vowed would keep the country dry forever.

“The 1953 flood was a wake-up call,” said Marcel Stive, a hydraulic engineering professor at the Delft University of Technology. “While the economy was resurrecting and doing well [after World War II], the public and politicians realized our vulnerability.”

The Delta Works, later declared one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, surrounded a fifth of the country’s population with an ingenious combination of dams, dikes, locks and first-of-their-kind storm surge barriers. It took decades to finish it all — much longer than expected — but the first project was complete just five years after the storm.

In the 66 years since the disaster, no Dutch citizen has died in a flood. In Texas, hundreds of citizens have perished in floods and hurricanes just in the past two decades.

Flood risk has remained so low in the Netherlands that homeowners don’t buy flood insurance and building codes behind the flood barriers are virtually nonexistent.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? The Ike Dike is based on the Dutch storm surge system. Go read the rest of the story and see what that means.

Sea levels rise, property values drop

Cool, cool, cool.

Sea level rise has cost Texas homeowners $76.4 million in potential property value, with Galveston hit the hardest, a new study released Tuesday found.

First Street Foundation and Columbia University analysts examined about 3 million coastal properties in Texas. Using a combination of real estate transactions and tidal flooding exposure, they found that from 2005 to 2017, homes in Galveston lost $9.1 million in potential value, followed by Jamaica Beach (which lost $8.6. million) and the Bolivar Peninsula ($8.1 million). It’s not necessarily that these coastal homes decreased in value by these amounts, the authors say, but that they didn’t appreciate as much as similar homes not exposed to tidal flooding. Researchers factored in square footage, proximity to amenities and economic trends like the 2008 housing recession.

First Street Foundation analyzed 18 coastal states from Maine to Texas, calculating a total $15.9 billion loss due to tidal flooding driven by sea level rise. The New York-based nonprofit studies the impacts of sea level rise and flooding. The report was released as the nation on Monday observed Earth Day.

“Sea level rise is not creeping up at the same rate, it’s accelerating,” said Jeremy Porter, a Columbia University professor and First Street Foundation statistical consultant. “This is an early indicator of what’s to come and the loss is already in the billions of dollars.”

Sea level off the coast of Texas is up to 18 inches higher than it was in 1950, and it’s accelerating, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For Texas, depending on the location, sea level rises 2 to 7 millimeters per year, said John Nielsen-Gammon, state climatologist at Texas A&M University. This is mostly due to sinking land as a result of the pumping of large volumes of groundwater and oil and gas, he said.

And the expectation is that global sea level rise will continue to increase, he said. “It’s not at all clear at this point by how much because we don’t have a lot of experience with ice shells collapsing, but the range is anywhere from continued 3 to 5 millimeters per year up to total sea level rise of 1 to 2 meters by the year 2100.”

Sure is a good thing global warming is a hoax, isn’t it? You can see the study details here. And you might consider buying your next house on higher ground.

Climate change and hurricanes

We’re living it now.

Photo: NOAA/NASA GOES-16

A group of top hurricane experts, including several federal researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, published striking new research Thursday, suggesting that hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean have grown considerably worse and that climate change is part of the reason why.

The study focused on rapid intensification, in which hurricanes may grow from a weak tropical storm or Category 1 status to Category 4 or 5 in a brief period. They found that the trend has been seen repeatedly in the Atlantic in recent years. It happened before Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and before Hurricane Michael pummeled the Gulf Coast with little warning last fall. Hurricane Michael, for example, transformed from a Category 1 into a raging Category 4 in the span of 24 hours.

The study, published in Nature Communications, describes its conclusion in blunt language, saying the Atlantic already has seen “highly unusual” changes in rapid hurricane intensification, compared to what models would predict from natural swings in the climate. That led researchers to conclude that climate change played a significant role.

“Natural variability cannot explain the magnitude of the observed upward trend,” they wrote. The research was led by Kieran Bhatia, who conducted the research as a graduate researcher at Princeton University and NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.

“There’s just a whole host of issues that come along with rapid intensification, and none of them are good,” said Jim Kossin, one of the study’s authors and a hurricane expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The increase in prevalence of rapidly intensifying storms, Kossin said, means both that there are more strong storms overall and that there are more risky situations near land.

“Rapid intensification is exceedingly dangerous because people, they’re not warned adequately, they’re not prepared, many of them don’t evacuate,” he said.

The findings come in the wake of two of the most damaging years for hurricanes and other extreme events. In 2017, according to NOAA figures, the United States saw $306 billion in disaster losses, largely driven by Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma. In 2018, Hurricanes Florence and Michael were major factors in a $91 billion damage total.

You can see the study here. People can believe whatever they want to believe about climate change. We’re going to experience the effects of it regardless.

Look out for lionfish

Hey, it’s another destructive invasive species, aided and abetted by climate change.

Scientists battling coral reef deaths caused by warming ocean waters 100 miles off the coast of Galveston might now have another climate change problem to fight in coming decades: a proliferation of zebra-striped lionfish.

Lionfish — brought to the U.S. from their Indo-Pacific home to stock aquariums and later dumped by owners unable to care for the constantly hungry vertebrate — have no known North American predators to stop their spread. As a result, they’ve been decimating reef populations from New York to Florida since the 1980s, arriving at the Gulf of Mexico’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in 2011.

And a recent study published in the Wilderness & Environmental Medicine journal suggests that venomous creatures like lionfish will become more prevalent as the oceans warm.

”They are the cockroaches of the sea,” said Michelle Johnston, a sanctuary research biologist. “They reproduce every four days and every four days they can release up to 50,000 eggs. Plus, nothing really eats them, they have venomous spines and the native fish are terrified of them.”

[…]

Between 2011 and 2017, researchers have recorded nearly 3,500 lionfish in the [federal Stetson Bank] sanctuary, NOAA stated, though experts believe that number is low.

And just as the lionfish did in household aquariums, they started eating everything in sight. A single lionfish can eat up to 5,000 fish per year, Johnston said.

In the Indo-Pacific, lionfish predators include sharks, grouper, frogfish, large eels and scorpionfish, according to Lionfish Hunters, a group that promotes the removal of lionfish from the Western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf.

But fish native to the Flower Garden Banks don’t know lionfish are predators, Johnston said, which makes the venomous fish’s food gathering that much easier.

“The lionfish are virtually unchecked” in Flower Gardens, Johnston said. “The ones we’ve collected are extremely large, they’re obese, and some of them have fatty liver disease. They’re eating themselves into oblivion.”

Here’s the NOAA page on lionfish. The Chron article is long and detailed, and one we’ve heard before for other species. Scientists are looking for solutions to control the population so as to minimize the damage these invaders cause. (Turning them into human food is another idea.) In the meantime, if you or someone you know owns an aquarium, don’t add a lionfish to your collection, and if you do then for crying out loud don’t just dump it somewhere if you decide you’re done with it. Let’s at least not add to the problem.