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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.

A pound of Prevention

Hurricane Harvey evolved from a tropical depression to a major hurricane in less than 36 hours. It was the worst rain storm ever recorded in the continental U.S. More than 75 lives were lost, while damage from the storm affected more than 100,000 homes.

The devastation brought renewed attention to the Ike Dike coastal spine project, with coverage from 60 Minutes, CBS and CNN following the storm.

Although most of the damage from Hurricane Harvey was due to rain-induced flooding, storm surges remain a dangerous threat to Texans along the northern Gulf Coast. The Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University at Galveston is developing solutions to mitigate future flooding in Houston.

“Texans are a pretty resilient lot, but we’re kind of cowboys, too,” Merrell said. “I wish we’d accept the fact that we could reduce risk, rather than live with it."

Reducing risk takes on increasing importance as 1.1 million people have moved to the Gulf Coast region since the devastation of Hurricane Ike, along with almost 137,000 new businesses. Meanwhile, rising sea levels and increasingly hot water have led to more water vapor being swept up and dumped on the coast. A hotter ocean means more energy, more power and greater intensity.

Gov. Abbott appointed Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp ’72 to lead the Rebuild Texas initiative, a three-year relief effort to rebuild the 350-mile stretch of coast affected by Hurricane Harvey and “future proof” the Texas coast from similar weather damage. The coastal spine would protect the greater Houston area, the ship channel and residents in Galveston Island from storm surges in a Category 3 or higher hurricane.

Brody says Houston’s flooding is symptomatic of a resiliency breakdown, adding that there must be a look at the broader region and a systemic review of the entire system. “Now is the time to break the cycle of rebuilding and waiting, rebuilding and waiting, and instead forge a new path of prevention, one that will protect Texans, their homes, businesses and lives,” he said. “I am hopeful. I have to be optimistic that this is an opportunity to make a change.”

Environmentalists worried about maintaining the proper mix of salinity in Galveston Bay—which is important for the overall health of the ecosystem—have expressed concerns about the structure across the pass. But the environmental gates would remain open most of the time to allow for water flow, and Merrell reported that some could be closed to adjust salinity input into the bay and maintain ecological integrity. The ecosystem behind the Dutch barriers has remained healthy, proving that a coastal spine is the smallest possible footprint.

While Texas A&M Galveston was developing the Ike Dike, other institutions were exploring different ideas for protecting the coast. One plan suggested building barriers around key infrastructure or important regions near the ship channel. Another recommended raising the level of a highway that ran along the ship channel. Aggie researchers find issues with both approaches because they emphasize protecting only certain areas around the coast. “We don’t want to build little dikes and sea walls around different parts of the bay,” said Brody. “With this kind of ad hoc approach, it’s wealthy communities that are protected first. We want all sections protected equally.”

An important tool for research on the Ike Dike has been the Coastal Atlas, which was developed at the CTBS in collaboration with the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M. The atlas is a central access point for the public to examine geographic data related to 29 Texas coastal counties. Brody and his associates at the CTBS have created forecasting for flooding in these counties, both without any coastal protection and with proposed barriers. The software allows users to look at the data through 150 different filters, such as flood damage, elevation and estimated losses. Plus, a slider bar that moves across the screen allows users to see the drastic reduction in damage if the Ike Dike was in place.  

They like the dike

After many years spent developing the Ike Dike plan and discussing its benefits with the public, Merrell and Brody are beginning to hope that the project will get built. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner gave the Ike Dike his strongest endorsement to date following Harvey, while at least 28 other leaders in coastal cities and counties also support the project.

Michel Bechtel, the mayor of Morgan’s Point, a community of 393 people on the ship channel, sees the plan as the smartest option for managing what can be humanly controlled. “We can’t do anything about the wind and the rainfall,” he said, “but we can certainly mitigate the storm surge. The Ike Dike is designed to do that.”

While the Ike Dike is on the White House’s list of national infrastructure projects to consider, there’s been little activity at the federal level. “My hope is that we have something in place in five years,” said Brody. “The worst that could happen is that there would be no action because of politics, meaning we’re sitting ducks in the next storm.”

Brody and Merrell both believe that what eventually gets built could be adapted as the global climate changes. “With sea levels rising, we may need to add on to the height over time,” said Merrell.

Continuing to research new technologies and changing climate conditions is an essential part of keeping the area safe, and this is what the CTBS will continue to do, even after the Ike Dike is built. To that end, the CTBS seeks a $5 million endowment, with a naming opportunity available, to ensure that it stays ahead of coastal threats. “Funding would allow us to research and disseminate information on coastal resiliency and flood risk reduction, thereby protecting key assets, property and the lives of Texas residents,” said Brody. “Without funding, all the work we’ve done and the momentum we’ve gained will probably stop.”

Merrell considers protecting the coast and helping the region prosper part of his life’s work as an Aggie. “We’re a tribe. We do things for the state of Texas, for the nation and for the world,” he said. “Being an Aggie means caring about the state and doing things for it. And I do.”

Watch a video about the Ike Dike: