Additional measures could and should be added to this coastal spine to offer protection to the level recommended by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Specifically, an internal line of defense that my colleagues and I have proposed — the Galveston Bay Park Plan — could be added and, with the coastal spine, would provide protection adequate to a 30-foot surge level. However, the Army Corps of Engineer’s cost-benefit methodology does not currently allow construction at this level of protection.
If this region wants the Galveston Bay Park Plan to be built, it would require financing through local or state government bonds, or other types of new financing vehicles, such as social impact bonds. Therefore, providing this level of protection will depend on leadership from our city and state elected officials.
For all these reasons, only with an extraordinary effort will we be able to come up with a better way to protect these facilities. Instead of having a national policy of trying to prevent horrible environmental disasters, our current policy assures that such destruction will occur. We are spending significant sums of money on inadequate protection that creates a false sense of success and security.
It is time that this issue of adequate surge protection be addressed nationally. I have lived on the Texas coast with the risk of this horrific event all my life, watching near miss after near miss. But with climate change increasing the frequency of storms and the speed at which they intensify, we cannot depend on the models and methods of the past.
The harm from such a surge would be unbelievable. Research from my colleagues at Rice University indicate that a 24-foot surge would cause the failure of storage tanks that would release a volume of nearly 90 million gallons of oil and hazardous substances. All of this would flow into adjacent neighborhoods and then into Galveston Bay, the second most productive estuary in the United States.
This time, the Houston region was fortunate. Laura went elsewhere, and although the damage to other parts of the Gulf Coast was terrible, it wasn’t the catastrophe I feared. I sincerely hope that this time the reality of what could have happened will cause us to rethink our concepts of acceptable risk, take our changing climate into consideration and protect our key ecological and economic resources.
Jim Blackburn is a professor at Rice University and the co-director of the university’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disaster Center.
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