While Bill Merrell was assessing the damage Hurricane Ike had caused to his two Galveston properties in 2008, he had a thought, which became a sketch, and then a catchy name, and now one of the best hopes to protect the Texas coast.
That thought: “The Dutch would never put up with this.”
The Dutch would not put up with $29 billion in property damage, with blocks of homes wiped off the map, majestic trees uprooted, mountains of debris and most importantly, the deaths of at least 59 people. They also wouldn’t stand for the continued threat to one of the country’s largest cities and one of the world’s most critical energy centers: Houston.
And, Merrell decided, neither should Texans.
The sketch that Merrell—holder of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Chair in Marine Sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston and the former president of the branch campus—made after this eureka moment was modeled on high-tech engineering feats he saw in the Netherlands, built to keep the North Sea out of the low-lying country. Merrell called his plan to build 55 miles of dune barriers and gates at the mouth of the Houston shipping channel a “coastal spine”. But the name that stuck was “Ike Dike,” a nod to the storm (the costliest in terms of material losses in Texas history) that made its need clear.
“This is preventive medicine,” said Merrell. “The concept is easy. You stop the storm surge at the coast so that you protect everyone.” By “everyone,” he means Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula, Houston, and all of the other vulnerable communities in between, plus the refineries and port infrastructure along the ship channel.
The estimated cost to build his Ike Dike is between $6 and $10 billion, but the estimated cost of losses if a Category 5 hurricane hits the area is $100 billion. This dollar estimate, of course, doesn’t take into consideration the incalculable impact of loss of lives and the ripple effect across the country of halted petroleum refining and distribution. “This project, “said Patrick Louchouarn, chief academic officer at Texas A&M Galveston, “integrates the natural sciences with the physical sciences to better society and to protect the economy.”
PLAYING RUSSIAN ROULETTE
Knowing that a major hurricane hits the Texas Gulf Coast every 15 years on average, Merrell and other leaders across Texas feel an urgent need to get the Ike Dike funded and built. Rising sea levels associated with climate change and a growing Houston population raise the stakes. “This matters to all Texans and to all Americans,” said Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who calls the Ike Dike the state’s most important infrastructure project. He is pushing for funding from the Trump administration. “A major event could change the course of Texas' economy and irreparably harm the lives of millions of Texans who live along the coast.”
Texas A&M Galveston’s Center for Texas Beaches and Shores (CTBS) has refined the concept of the Ike Dike and researched its effectiveness, demonstrating the university’s commitment to impacting the state, nation and world.
“Every time June rolls around, I get nervous,” said Samuel Brody, director of the CTBS. “It’s like we’re playing Russian roulette with our future. I live in this community, and I know the level of vulnerability. I get up every day and think, ‘How can I save property and lives? What can I do as a researcher?’”
The Seawall and Beyond
The 1900 Galveston Hurricane is infamous—still the worst hurricane disaster in the country’s history. Galveston was flattened. The death toll was 6,000 to 12,000 people, and the storm altered Galveston’s fortunes. Once the state’s largest city—known as the Wall Street of the South—it never recovered its status after the disaster. But that wasn’t from a lack of trying.
In an impressive engineering feat for the early 20th century, city leaders raised the level of the island a few feet above sea level and built a 17-foot seawall along 10 miles of the island. The seawall did its job through storms such as Hurricane Carla in 1961, but Hurricane Ike was different. Galveston was most impacted not by the storm surge on its beach side, but by water that barreled into its shallow bay and flooded the area. City planners hadn’t protected the island on its back side.
Merrell’s Ike Dike plan would prevent water from ever entering the bay. When Merrell visited the Netherlands in the 1980s—as head of the International Ocean Discovery Program at Texas A&M—he was given a tour of the country’s coastal barriers. Merrell remembered the design and eventually worked with the Dutch as partners on the Ike Dike concept. The plan proposes building a 17-foot high sea wall along the unprotected parts of Galveston Island and the entirety of Bolivar Peninsula, but disguising the wall as sand dunes. Some of the dunes will be natural, but others will have a concrete wall beneath them. Vegetation will help keep the sand in place. “When you stand out on the beautiful dune system in the Netherlands, you can’t tell which ones are real and which ones are artificial,” said Brody.
Another key piece of the plan includes building a structure across the pass between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, known as Bolivar Roads, which is the entry to the Houston ship channel. Most the structure would have submergible barriers (also known as environmental gates) that would drop down and affix to the ocean floor when a hurricane targets the coast. The structure would have an 800-foot opening for ship traffic that could be closed during a storm. On each side of the opening, a gate on a ball and socket apparatus will swing together to close. The design is similar to the gates the Dutch installed to close off Rotterdam Harbor. “When you see them close, you know that something may be coming, but it’s not getting through,” said Merrell.
Environmentalists worried about maintaining the proper mix of salinity in Galveston Bay—which is important for the overall health of the ecosystem—have expressed concerns about the structure across the pass. But the environmental gates would remain open the majority of the time to allow for water flow, and Merrell reported that some could be closed to adjust salinity input into the bay. “We’re doing models of salinity in the bay with the Ike Dike in place,” said Merrell. “We want to make sure we keep the ecological integrity.” He pointed out that the ecosystem behind the Dutch barriers has remained healthy and that a coastal spine is the smallest possible footprint, therefore minimizing the environmental impact.
While Texas A&M Galveston was developing the Ike Dike, other institutions were exploring different ideas for protecting the coast. One plan suggested building barriers around key infrastructure or important regions near the ship channel. Another recommended raising the level of a highway that ran along the ship channel. Aggie researchers see issues with both approaches because they emphasize protecting only certain areas around the coast. “We don’t want to build little dikes and sea walls around different parts of the bay. With this kind of ad hoc approach, it's the wealthy communities that are protected first,” said Brody. “We want all sections protected equally.”
Seeing the Future
An important tool for research on the Ike Dike has been the Coastal Atlas, which was developed at the CTBS in collaboration with the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M. The atlas is a central access point for the public to examine geographic data related to 29 Texas coastal counties. Brody and his associates at the CTBS have created forecasting for flooding in these counties—both without any coastal protection and with proposed barriers. The software allows users to look at the data through 150 different filters, such as flood damage, elevation and estimated losses. It is so detailed that users can zoom in to look at predictions for their homes or individual plots of land. Plus, a slider bar that moves across the screen allows users to see the drastic reduction in damage if the Ike Dike was in place. The Coastal Atlas is viewable from the homepage of the CTBS website.
Developing the Coastal Atlas led to several key findings. One proves that were a coastal spine in place during the 2008 Hurricane Ike, it would have prevented more than 95 percent in residential damages. Another shows that the Ike Dike could prevent 70 percent of anticipated residential losses in a Category 5 hurricane. The atlas is an indispensable tool as the Houston-Galveston area continues to grow. Businesses can look at land before developing to get an idea of the risks involved, and the public can decide whether to buy or build homes based on various scenarios.
THEY LIKE THE DIKE
After many years spent developing the Ike Dike plan and discussing its benefits with the public, Merrell and Brody are beginning to have hope that the project will get built. “We’re forging a consensus behind the Texas A&M Galveston study,” Bush announced at a March meeting of the Texas Chapter of the American Shore & Beach Preservation Association. Also endorsing the plan are Houston’s Mayor Sylvester Turner and 28 other leaders in coastal cities and counties that stand to suffer when another hurricane hits. Big businesses and small towns alike see the value.
“The plan can protect not just the regional economy and the national economy, but the world economy,” said Fredell Rosen, president of the Bay Area and Coast Protection Alliance.