How Do You Solve A Problem Like Laura? Houston and the USG Say the “Ike Dike”

Twelve years after Hurricane Ike tore up the Texas coastline, and three years after Hurricane Harvey stalled over Houston and filled the city with floodwater, the federal government and the state have a proposal to deal with future hurricanes — but it will cost $31b and is still in the planning phase Dubbed the “Ike Dike” — the proposal, which the Army Corps of Engineers is studying, is a 71-mile-long barrier system consisting of various levees and gates that they claim will protect the southeast Texas coast from storms like Laura. But Laura is here today — and there is a real risk that the super-powerful category 4 or 5 storm could cause a chemical spill and create an enormous environmental disaster.  When the floodwaters recede over the next few days that can cause as much damage as the original surge because of all the debris.

Why This Matters:  There may be a cheaper and more effective solution than the Ike Dike, which is to build a series of barrier islands using the silt dredged out of Houston Harbor.  But even that one, at $3b, can’t get off the ground.  And if Laura is anything like Harvey, it could cost $125b in damages.  In the meantime, zero progress has been made on any kind of storm protection for Houston, Galveston, and the Houston Ship Channel.  

Hurricane Ike and the Ike Dike

That original Ike Dike design called for constructing levees that would run along a highway on Galveston Island and behind the dune line, but it would have made homes adjacent to the beach more likely to flood and thus would likely have required extensive eminent domain buyouts.  So the Corps redesigned the project and by late 2019 came up with a double dune system that would allegedly take care of that issue.  The new plan also included a “sea gate at the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel, a ‘ring’ barrier around the northern coast of Galveston, gates and pumping stations at Dickinson Bayou and Clear Lake, and 6,600 acres of ecosystem restoration.”

Why Is It Still Only On The Drawing Board?

The project has never been able to get federal funding, much less final approval from the government at any level. Researchers at Rice University alternatively proposed a more “natural” solution — that “for the next 100 years, the silt regularly dredged from the Ship Channel to keep it passable would be used to build a system of barrier islands inside Galveston Bay — islands that would not only protect the Ship Channel from a storm surge, but also provide recreational space and wildlife habitat.”  They were critical of the Corps’ original plan for the Dike, which they said failed to account for strengthening storms as a result of climate change. But that alternative is not funded either.  It’s just too expensive for the state and local government to build without help.

E&E News reported that in 2017, Texas Land Office Commissioner George P. Bush asked President Trump to “help move the project along with $15 billion in federal cost-share that’s necessary to begin construction” but that never happened — it died with Trump’s non-existent infrastructure plan.  Trump is not a fan of these Corps’ projects — he rejected a similar plan for New York City.  And apparently in 2019 at a Dallas event he “mocked Texas officials” for proposing to build “a dam in the ocean,” calling it a “crazy thing that may work or it may not,” adding the state “made a fortune” from federal aid post-Harvey, according to E&E News.

Storm Warnings 

One other notable point is that the language being used to describe the storm is intended to make people more likely to heed the warnings.  You will notice that in addition to the storm surge heights, the National Weather Service and media weather forecasters now explain the storm’s threat in terms of the human toll — using words such as “unsurvivable storm surge” that will “extend up to 40 miles inland” and the surge would cause “large and destructive waves” and that it could “cause catastrophic damage.”

To Go Deeper:  You can learn more about the Ike Dike here.  And watch this video.  And if you really want to dig deep, a book by Erik Larson entitled “Isaac’s Storm” about the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, is an excellent read.

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