Environmental innovation: Building public parks as storm surge barrier for Houston

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Dozens of Houston area elected officials and their constituents met outside of Houston on Wednesday to discuss the threat of a storm surge that could devastate the region.

The community meeting featured four expert speakers discussing various plans researchers and engineers designed to address the threat of a hurricane-powered storm surge in the Galveston and Houston bay area.

“Hurricane Ike came to visit us in 2008, and what do we have to show for it?” asked Adrian Garcia, a Harris County commissioner who led the meeting and represents the Pasadena area.

“Nothing” murmured the crowd.

The general mood among the panel: time is running out to do something before the next big storm hits.

“Over 800,000 residents are at risk,” said Jim Blackburn, a Rice University professor and co-director of the school’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disaster Center.

Using Army Corps of Engineers modeling, Blackburn showed concerned audience members what a category 3 storm could do to the Galveston-Harris County bay area.

Blackburn said a storm of that size could produce a destructive surge measuring between 20 to 25 feet in height. Those waves would devastate the Houston Ship Channel and surrounding oil infrastructure. They would unleash 90 million gallons of oil and hazardous substances into the area and bring the region’s economy to a grinding halt for months.

“This is a national security issue, this is the biggest horror that anyone can imagine for this part of the world,” Blackburn said. “And we’re not ready for it.”

Plans discussed at the meeting to prevent such a disaster included the well-known Ike Dike, a separate plan by the Army Corps of Engineers for a beach-dune coastal barrier, and the SSPEED Center’s Galveston Bay Park plan– an idea for a public park built within the waters of Galveston Bay to dampen the storm’s worst effects.

The latter project appeared to generate some interest among audience members, both for its rapid construction time, total cost, and use as a park.

The proposal would work by building a storm barrier and gate system inside Galveston Bay atop existing dredge spoils. The plan would call for widening the Houston Ship Channel and using dirt excavated from that project to develop a landmass inside the bay, which would then be developed into a public park.

Blackburn said the Galveston Bay Park plan would cost $5 billion and could be completed by 2027.

“We’ve got a once in a lifetime opportunity to combine dredging the ship channel, widening it, building in the bay for support, and turning that into a world-class feature,” Blackburn said.

Washington politics was one concern brought up by Col. Len Waterworth, a Texas A&M maritime administration professor and former Port Of Houston director.

He said that without sufficient public pressure, the Army Corps of Engineer’s coastal barrier plan could face delays and obstructions from Congress.

“Every year you go for appropriations [from Congress] and they never give you the right amount of money to be optimal on construction,” Waterworth said. “The project stretches out, Congress takes credit, the Core takes the blame, and projects cost three or four times the right amount.”

He said for a project of that size, estimated to cost between $23 to $32 billion, Texans would need to use their political will to help get it done.

One of the most positive aspects of the Galveston Bay Park plan, Blackburn said, is the the fact that it could be funded locally without Congress.

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