What’s in the $29B proposal to build a Texas Coastal Spine to protect our coast from future hurricanes?

State & Regional

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed its final proposal of the Texas Coastal Study on Friday, often nicknamed the “Ike Dike” after Hurricane Ike devastated Texas’ coast in 2008.

The next step is approval from Congress, and then allocating funding. The current price tag on the entire project is pinned at nearly $29 billion, and would take 20 years to complete.

Jim Blackburn, a professor at Rice University and the co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, & Evacuation from Disasters Center, said Texas is lucky Tropical Storm Nicholas — which made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane — wasn’t a Category 4 or 5.

“Nicolas was a kind of a baby storm,” said Blackburn. “And it was scary, even being such a small storm. But it’s hard to imagine the force of a Category 4, Category 5 storm, and it would bring 25 feet of water up into Galveston Bay and into the Houston Ship Channel.”

He said it’s only a matter of time before another big storm, like Hurricane Harvey, hits our coast.

“We’ve been living on good fortune for a long time in the Galveston Bay Area. And we cannot depend on that for the next 20-30 years that we have got to get these defenses built,” Blackburn explained.

That’s exactly why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started working on the coastal spine project six years ago, after Hurricane Ike wreaked havoc on our state and was only a Category 2.

“The recovery costs for Hurricane Ike, which kind of is what stimulated this project to begin with, was over $32 billion. The price for Harvey, which happened more recently was $125 billion. So in essence, the $28.9 billion for this project pays for itself in one hurricane, one storm,” Dr. Kelly Burks-Copes, the lead project manager on the Coastal Texas Study explained.

She said the project ties “gray” infrastructure, like manmade floodwalls and levees and pumps, with “green” infrastructure, like restoring our natural ecosystems along the coast.

“The first piece of the plan is to put in a series of gated structures….they basically stay open most of the time, they just slide up and then when we’re ready to deploy, they slide down into place,” Dr. Burks-Copes said, “Then, use the ecosystem restoration on the backside to naturally provide additional resilience.”

Blackburn said he thinks the proposal is a good start, but won’t be enough, especially since climate change is causing more intense storms.

“Our statistics have not caught up with the reality of climate change. And so the Corps of Engineers considers categories four and five storms too rare to actually fall within their standard benefit-cost analysis format. So this kind of first-level of protection, this coastal spine will protect us against a Category 1 or 2 storm, but doesn’t really do a lot against a category 4 or 5 storm,” Blackburn explained.

Luke Metzger with Environment Texas explained climate change is causing these storms to intensify more quickly, and dump more water.

“When storms hit, you have a much greater chance of the storm surge that can cause the deadly flooding, you also have, because of the warmer atmosphere, we have more evaporation. And so there’s more water vapor that’s available to storms to hurricanes, so that when they hit, they can drop much more rainfall than they have historically,” Metzger said.

But Dr. Burks-Copes said the Corps of Engineers has to consider the return on investment when laying out the plan, and even in a large storm, will still provide some layer of protection.

“The Corps is mandated to look at the full range. So we looked at very small storms, just kind of rainfall events, all the way up to something we call the mega-storm, that 10,000-year event. And in all those instances, the features that we’re proposing reduce the risks significantly reduce the risks,” she explained, “Even in the event of a large storm, it may not reduce all of the risk, but it’s doing a really good job of bringing that risk way down.”

Even if the plan does get approved, Blackburn said we need to drive the urgency of climate change to Texans in the 20-year period it will take to build it.

“We need to do a lot better job of informing the public of the risk of climate change in these storms. In Texas, we don’t do a good job about talking about climate change,” Blackburn said.

Metzger added that Texans need to start reducing pollution, and consider smarter planning for our communities.

“Nature-based infrastructure, installing things like rain gardens and green roofs and artificial wetlands, you know, those are things we can do, quickly, cheaply,” Metzger said. “And they won’t solve the whole problem, but they can definitely have a big impact in helping avoid some of the worst instances of flooding.”

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