While Bill Merrell was assessing the damage Hurricane Ike had caused to his two Galveston properties in 2008, he had a thought, which became a sketch, then a catchy name, and now one of the best hopes to protect the Texas coast.
That thought: “The Dutch would never put up with this.”
The Dutch would not put up with $29 billion in property damage, with blocks of homes wiped off the map, majestic trees uprooted, mountains of debris and most importantly, the deaths of at least 59 people. They also wouldn’t stand for the continued threat to one of the country’s largest cities and one of the world’s most critical energy centers: Houston.
And, Merrell decided, neither should Texans.
The proposed coastal barrier would provide a substantial enhancement to the existing Galveston seawall with floodgates that would protect Galveston, the Bolivar Peninsula, the Galveston Bay area and Houston.
The sketch that Merrell—holder of the George P. Mitchell ’40 Chair in Marine Sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston and the former president of the branch campus—made after this eureka moment was modeled on high-tech engineering feats he saw in the Netherlands, built to keep the North Sea out of the low-lying country. Merrell called his plan to build 55 miles of dune barriers and gates at the mouth of the Houston shipping channel a “coastal spine”. But the name that stuck was “Ike Dike,” a nod to the storm that made its need clear.
“This is preventive medicine,” said Merrell. “The concept is easy. You stop the storm surge at the coast to protect everyone: Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula, Houston and all the other vulnerable communities in between, plus the refineries and port infrastructure along the ship channel.”
Playing Russian Roulette
Merrell’s Ike Dike proposal, initially put forth in 2009, has drawn increased attention in the national media in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Although most of the damage from Harvey was due to rain-induced flooding, storm surges remain a dangerous threat.
The estimated cost to build his Ike Dike is between $6 and $10 billion, but the cost of losses is higher: Hurricane Harvey caused between $150 and $200 billion in damages. This dollar estimate doesn’t take into consideration the incalculable impact of loss of lives and the ripple effect across the country of halted petroleum refining and distribution. “This project,” said Patrick Louchouarn, chief academic officer at Texas A&M Galveston, “integrates the natural sciences with the physical sciences to better society and to protect the economy.”
Knowing that a major hurricane like Harvey hits the Texas Gulf Coast every 15 years on average, Merrell and other leaders across Texas feel an urgent need to get the Ike Dike funded and built. Rising sea levels associated with climate change and a growing Houston population raise the stakes. “This matters to all Texans and to all Americans,” said Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who calls the Ike Dike the state’s most important infrastructure project. He is pushing for funding from the Trump administration.
Bill Merrell based the proposed Ike Dike plan on coastal barrier designs he saw in the Netherlands.
In the meantime, Merrell and other researchers at Texas A&M Galveston’s Center for Texas Beaches and Shores (CTBS) continue to refine the Ike Dike concept, research its effectiveness and advocate for its implementation to politicians at all levels. “It’s like we’re playing Russian roulette with our future,” said Samuel Brody, director of the CTBS. “I live in the Galveston community. I know the level of vulnerability. I get up every day and think, ‘How can I save property and lives? What can I do as a researcher?’”
The Seawall and Beyond
The 1900 Galveston Hurricane is infamous—still the worst hurricane disaster in the country’s history. Galveston was flattened. The death toll was 6,000 to 12,000 people, and the storm altered Galveston’s fortunes. Once the state’s largest city, known as the Wall Street of the South, it never recovered its status after the disaster. But that wasn’t from a lack of trying.
In an impressive engineering feat for the early 20th century, city leaders raised the level of the island a few feet above sea level and built a 17-foot seawall along 10 miles of the island. The seawall did its job through storms such as Hurricane Carla in 1961, but Hurricane Ike was different. Galveston was most impacted not by the storm surge on its beach side, but by water that barreled into its shallow bay and flooded the area. City planners hadn’t protected the island on its back side.
Merrell’s Ike Dike plan would prevent water from ever entering the bay. When Merrell visited the Netherlands in the 1980s—as head of the International Ocean Discovery Program at Texas A&M—he was given a tour of the country’s coastal barriers. Merrell remembered the design and eventually worked with the Dutch as partners on the Ike Dike concept.
Sam Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University at Galveston.
The plan proposes building a 17-foot-high sea wall along the unprotected parts of Galveston Island and the entirety of Bolivar Peninsula, but disguising the wall as sand dunes. Some of the dunes will be natural, but others will have a concrete wall beneath them. Vegetation will help keep the sand in place, and the dune system will be designed to include walking and biking paths. “When you stand out on the beautiful dune system in the Netherlands, you can’t tell which ones are real and which ones are artificial,” said Brody.
Such a plan is expected to boost tourism along the Texas Coast. But in a bigger sense, Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula will attract more investment with coastal protection in place. Businesses such as hotels, restaurants and visitor services will feel more confident that their ventures won’t get washed away in the next storm, while insurance rates should decrease significantly.
Another key piece of the plan includes building a structure across the pass between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, known as Bolivar Roads, which is the entry to the Houston ship channel. Most of the structure would have submergible barriers (also known as environmental gates) that would drop down and affix to the ocean floor when a hurricane targets the coast. The structure would have an 800-foot opening for ship traffic that could be closed during a storm. On each side of the opening, a gate on a ball and socket apparatus will swing together to close. The design is similar to the gates the Dutch installed to close off Rotterdam Harbor. “When you see them close, you know that something may be coming, but it’s not getting through,” said Merrell.