As Alicia Rea drove through the streets of Galveston, she wept for her community at the destruction left from Hurricane Ike—virtually every house in her neighborhood was flooded. At the time of Hurricane Ike in September 2008, Rea was an operations manager in the Navigation Division with United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Galveston District.
“Although our home was damaged and riddled with mold, many others were in worse condition, and it was devastating to witness the aftermath” said Rea, who is now the chief of Emergency Management at USACE Galveston District. “So many families lost everything, it made me realize how imperative it was for the Corps to work at a solution to protect the Texas coast.”
Texas' entire Gulf Coast historically averages three tropical storms or hurricanes every four years, generating coastal storm surges and sometimes bringing heavy rainfall and damaging winds hundreds of miles inland. Future projections suggest increases in hurricane rainfall and intensity. The expected rise in sea level will result in the potential for greater storm surge damage along the Gulf Coast of Texas.
Home to the fourth largest city in the U.S., Texas, which is often referred to as “the energy corridor,” accounts for 40% of the nation’s petrochemical industry and 25% of national petroleum-refining capacity. Texas is the nation’s top state for waterborne commerce with Texas ports representing over $82.8 billion in economic value to the state. More than 522 million tons of cargo pass through Texas ports annually, including machinery, grain, seafood, oil, cars, retail merchandise and military freight. Three Texas ports are designated by the Department of Defense as “strategic military ports,” providing surface deployment and distribution for strategic military cargo worldwide.
According to Rea, not having a plan to protect the Texas coast leaves Texas’ economic value and more importantly the lives of Texas residents highly vulnerable to storms like Hurricane Ike. With the need for storm surge protection, the USACE Galveston District, in partnership with the Texas General Land Office (GLO), launched a study in 2015 to determine which actions could be taken to ensure the Texas coast remains resilient.
“The GLO stepped up to be the non-federal cost-share sponsor of the study,” said Dr. Kelly Burks-Copes, project manager of the Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study at USACE Galveston District. “Our strong federal-state partnership will enable us to explore innovative ways to get this study complete as expeditiously as possible.”
The Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study is currently the largest civil works feasibility study in USACE and in the United States with plans of coastal protection spanning across 76 miles of Texas coastline. The plan calls for coastal storm resiliency measures to include surge gates, vertical lift gates, ring barrier, height extension of the seawall as well as beach and dune measures. Over the course of the study, over 600 storms were modeled and analyzed by a state-of-the art Coastal Storm Modeling Suite.
Burks-Copes went on to explain the importance of the study in regards to the viability to the nation and the Texas coast, adding that the GLO and USACE have worked cooperatively with the Dutch to model an innovative design that can protect lives and property from storms and rising sea levels.
In March 2019, the USACE and GLO hosted the Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Study Gate Design Workshop with members of I-Storm, an International Network of Storm Surge Barrier experts, to participate in a knowledge sharing workshop to help inform the Coastal Texas Study Team on expertise and knowledge of design, construction, operations and maintenance of large coastal storm surge barriers.
“The Dutch are world-renowned for building large barrier systems on the coast,” said Burks-Copes. “We have been consulting with them through I-Storm and they were heavily involved in the gate design workshop in March.”
In addition, multiple agencies independently decided to study the Texas Gulf Coast in hopes of developing a solution that would provide protection to reduce the propensity for loss of life and property. Wanting to maximize efforts, the USACE and GLO collaborated with the Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District and Texas A&M University at Galveston on data and analyses including preliminary storm surge modeling, engineering design and economic values.
“We encourage input of the study because it gives us the ability to optimize the design plan,” said Burks-Copes. “When we had our first public comment period for the study, we received approximately 13,000 comments.”
As a result of those comments, designs for the Coastal Texas Study have evolved from the original plan and will continue to evolve with the upcoming public comment period scheduled for September 2020, Burks-Copes explained.
“Although we have made progress in taking steps to protect the Texas coast, we are still only half way finished with the study,” said Burks-Copes.
According to Burks-Copes, the USACE and GLO are set to deliver the report of the Coastal Texas Study to Congress in 2021, while the design phase of the project is expected to take approximately 2-5 years, with another 10-15 years of construction, and that’s if the Corps receives the required funding.
“The estimated cost for construction is projected at from $23-32 billion,” said Burks-Copes, “which seems like a substantial amount however, I’d like to add that the estimated cost of recovery from Hurricane Ike was $38 billion. When you look at it from those terms, the barrier would pay for itself in one storm.”
While preparedness continues to play a key role in mitigating against the loss of lives and property, as the Texas economy continues to grow and the coast still remains largely unprotected, Burks-Copes stresses the necessity for a lasting solution to be identified and implemented.
“Today, Texas is just as vulnerable to a major storm as it was in 2008,” said Burks-Copes. “With a barrier system protecting the Texas coast, it will exponentially reduce the risk to public health and safety, substantially reduce the risk to critical infrastructure, reduce the economic impact and increase resiliency along the energy corridor, all efforts that are directly in line with the USACE mission of providing vital public engineering services in peace and war to strengthen our nation's security, energize the economy, and reduce risks from disasters.”