An alliance of Southeast Texas government officials and business leaders on Wednesday embraced the idea of building a nearly 60-mile-long barrier of covered concrete dunes and water gates along the upper Texas coastline to ease damage from hurricane storm surges.
The Bay Area Coastal Protection Alliance said the levees and flood gates designed by a professor at Texas A&M University at Galveston -- and dubbed the "Ike dike" -- would be modeled after a successful similar project constructed about 25 years ago in The Netherlands.
Ike refers to the September 2008 hurricane that socked Southeast Texas, killing about 50 people and causing $35 billion in damage, making it Texas' costliest storm.
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"We can't help but wonder when the next hurricane is going to hit the Houston-Galveston region," Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, said. "What we learned most from Ike is it's not the wind we must be concerned about most, but the surge."
William Merrell, a marine scientist at Texas A&M-Galveston, has been pushing his idea for several years since Ike. It would be a series of levees and gates from High Island, east of Galveston, and west to San Luis Pass, extending the protection of the Galveston Seawall erected in the aftermath of the great 1900 storm, where more than 5,000 people were killed. It remains the nation's worst loss of life in a natural disaster.
The gates would be used at Galveston Bay, on the Bolivar Peninsula where homes were wiped out by Ike, and at San Luis Pass.
Merrell said the first hurdle is to complete a cost-benefit study, which could be complete a year from now. Then the proposal could go to the Army Corps of Engineers, a process that could take years, or a legislative route that could cut the time considerably. That was the path for New Orleans, where the images of the devastation from Hurricane Katrina spurred Congress to approve money to rebuild flood protection.
"What we're hoping for is the political will so there doesn't have to be a disaster here," Merrell said.
Cost estimates are as high as $6 billion, with supporters hoping 85 percent would be picked up by the federal government.
"The reality is we have to get congressional and federal involvement," Vic Pierson, vice president of the alliance, said. "I'm not saying it's going to be an easy task."
He said supporters would have to convince congressmen from other areas to approve spending because of the Texas region's impact on people and businesses in their own areas and on the national and global economy. The Port of Houston, for example, is one of the country's busiest ports and home to the nation's largest petrochemical complex.
"There are skeptics," Pierson acknowledged. "What we have to do is get the economic research included and be able to show there is a great return on the investment."