As water rushed through the streets of downtown Galveston, Bill Merrell, a marine scientist at Texas A&M University at Galveston and an island resident for more than 30 years, glanced around the second-story room of the 19th-century office building — it survived the 1900 hurricane with the roof intact — and spotted a bottle of wine he’d been saving for seven years. The wind roared by at more than 100 miles per hour as a huge wall of water, the deadly storm surge, slammed into the upper Texas coast in the early morning hours of September 13, 2008, as Hurricane Ike made landfall in Galveston.
He recalls barely tasting the first glass — the copper tinge of adrenaline blocked everything else as the hurricane moved overhead — but the second glass was smooth. “At that point the hurricane is there outside the window and all you can do is hope the building holds together and the roof doesn’t come off. You’re helpless,” he says now.
The next morning, standing in the street in water above his hips, he stared at the buildings around him, all filled with water, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage that the city had sustained from yet another hurricane.
Just a few blocks away, Fletcher Harris, an 85-year-old World War II veteran Merrell has known more than 30 years, was hanging onto a pole with his remaining hand. (He’d lost the other in combat.) After being swept away from his home the night before, Harris managed to keep from being pulled out to sea by tethering himself to a signpost. When rescuers found him, he swore that, after decades of living through hurricanes, he’d never weather a hurricane on the island again.
About 75 percent of the long, thin barrier island was submerged. Both the low-rent government housing and Merrell’s elegant 155-year-old home were underwater. Many who evacuated before the storm — elderly friends, the poor, the homeless — would never be able to come back, Merrell realized.
Ike left more than 60 people dead and about $30 billion in damage along the Gulf Coast. Galveston got hit the hardest. The famed Galveston Seawall didn’t protect much of anything — Galveston Bay slopped over the edge of its banks and flooded the island city from behind. Merrell made up his mind this would never happen again.
He began sketching an idea for a storm surge barrier, picturing the elaborate system of dikes and flood gates he’d seen years earlier on a trip to the Netherlands. The concept Merrell devised included miles of barriers disguised as sand dunes to keep storm surges from hitting Galveston, Harris, Brazoria, Chambers, Jefferson and Orange counties, with a pair of gates across Bolivar Roads Pass and San Luis Pass to keep the brunt of the surge out of Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel.
Merrell hammered out the basic approach within a month, expecting Congress to send emergency funding to start the long process of studying, designing and building systems to protect the upper Texas coast.
The money never came.
Even though it finally turned out to be the third-most-expensive storm in U.S. history, Ike was knocked off the front pages by the country’s financial meltdown a few days later. Congress kicked Texas about $3 billion for recovery but nothing for coastal protection. “After Katrina, after Sandy, Congress didn’t hesitate to give billions to coastal barrier projects, but we didn’t get any of that,” Merrell says now. “We call Ike the forgotten storm.”
So Merrell decided to do it himself. Using the contacts he made when he was president of Texas A&M University at Galveston, he started doing presentations for city councils, county commissioners, anyone who wanted to hear about the coastal spine, or the “Ike Dike,” as the plan was dubbed.
Eight years later, everyone knows about the Ike Dike thanks to the regular spate of endorsements from local, state and federal politicians, from city councils and economic and community organizations across the region. Merrell and his supporters insist his approach, which will cost anywhere from $6 billion to more than $10 billion, is the only option because it protects more than 6 million people living on the upper Texas coast and guards the vital petrochemical industry that motors both the regional and the national economy.
But critics say the plan is easy to sell because the details are vague and it’s a simple idea. “Draw a line on a map along the coast in front of Galveston Bay and all of your problems are solved,” says Phil Bedient, a civil engineering professor and founder of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disaster Center. “But his plan won’t be enough.”
Opponents say the Ike Dike won’t even keep a storm surge from flooding Galveston, as happened during Hurricane Ike. “With Ike Dike they can still flood from the backside, with water going up the Trinity River and then coming back down. We need multiple lines of defense and we need a plan for if things go wrong, if water overtops the barriers, if dikes break and a gate doesn’t work — we need options,” Bedient says.
Environmentalists maintain the Ike Dike could screw up Galveston Bay itself, which would affect the wildlife living in and around it, potentially altering the entire estuary system, from the rivers to the coast.
However, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has endorsed the plan, and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush is committed to building the Ike Dike coastal spine, as are Senator John Cornyn, Representative Randy Weber and others.
For Merrell, the Ike Dike is the only option. He dismisses the less-invasive alternatives pitched by Rice University, saying they would only protect the Houston Ship Channel, leaving the rest of the area vulnerable. “There’s no Houston-centric plan that works. All of them are perfectly unacceptable and not smart,” Merrell says. “They’re just slowing us down, which is frustrating, but I know our plan is the one that will get built, because our idea is better.”
One thing the two sides agree upon: Something needs to be done. When the perfect storm finally hits just to the south of Galveston — where Ike was originally slated to make landfall — feeds off Galveston Bay and then roars up the Houston Ship Channel, it will cut a swath of devastation through the entire coastal region, covering Galveston, Clear Lake and half of Houston with water. It will unleash hundreds of gallons of oil and other chemicals and toxins into the flood waters, creating the worst environmental and natural disaster ever seen in the United States.
Located on a thin barrier island between the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay, Galveston has been buffeted by hurricanes regularly since it was founded. City officials had looked at building a coastal barrier to protect the low-lying island since the 1800s, but never took action to guard it from potential hurricanes.
The Great Storm of 1900 changed that. After the hurricane hit Galveston, in September 1900, large sections of the town were nothing but rubble and more than 6,000 people were dead, the most deadly natural disaster in U.S. history (which it remains to this day). Survivors roamed the streets, some clutching dead children, stepping over the bodies that littered the ground after the storm surge retreated from the city. “That was so bad it got people to stop talking about building a coastal barrier on the island and to actually do it,” Merrell says.
Galveston officials responded by jacking the entire city up, using enough sand to fill more than a million dump trucks to lift the town a few more feet above sea level, and constructing the 17-foot-tall Galveston Seawall along the portion of the town that faced the Gulf of Mexico. When the next major hurricane struck, in 1915, Galveston came through unscathed.
The upper Texas coast has been hit by a significant hurricane every 15 years, on average, since 1900, but while these storms have prompted discussion of more storm surge protection, few projects have been built. “Typically, government doesn’t do anything until people die,” says Bill King, the former mayor of Kemah, a former Houston mayoral candidate and a longtime proponent of storm surge protection. “Every year we’re playing Russian roulette with this, but it’s hard to get support for an eventuality that may happen next year, or seven years from now.”
But in 2005 Hurricane Katrina underscored the vulnerability of the coast. It also inspired Rice’s Bedient to study coastal barrier protection more closely. He went to Chalmette, Louisiana, after Katrina hit and saw what a single storage tank from the nearby Murphy Oil Refinery had done after it had been dislodged by the floodwaters, releasing more than 25,000 barrels of oil. The odor was noticeable from five miles away in any direction from the spill site, Bedient says. The water receded but the oil stayed, smeared inside houses and businesses. Some buildings had to be torn down because it was impossible to get rid of the oil, he says.
Later, staring at a map of the Houston Ship Channel, Bedient says he realized how exposed the Houston Ship Channel is. “It dawned on me, right then, that, holy mackerel, this was what we need to be worrying about,” he says. Bedient founded the SSPEED Center (a.k.a. the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disaster Center).
Shortly after Hurricane Ike hit, SSPEED came out with its plan to protect the Houston Ship Channel from hurricane storm surge: the $1.5 billion Centennial Gate concept. The gate would be built on the edge of the Houston Ship Channel just above where the channel meets Galveston Bay.
Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and the co-director of SSPEED, presented the concept to communities in the area. When Blackburn got to La Porte, one of the coastal towns that would not be protected by the gate, the mood was tense. Michel Bechtel, the mayor of Morgan’s Point, a small industrial town just below Hartman Bridge, was incensed at what he heard. Bechtel had watched as the 15-foot-high storm surge came in during Hurricane Ike, the water lapping at the city limits of Morgan’s Point. A gate on the Houston Ship Channel would guarantee Morgan’s Point and the other communities would be submerged next time, Bechtel realized. He started asking pointed, angry questions during Blackburn’s presentation.
“I came out of that with arrows all over my back. It made good sense, but people that wouldn’t be protected hated it,” Blackburn says now.
Bechtel contacted Merrell immediately after the meeting and started lobbying for support of the Ike Dike, digging into his own pockets (he’s a wildcatter) to fund tickets to political fundraisers to get face time with state and federal lawmakers and pitch Merrell’s concept. “Merrell’s plan protects everybody, poor and rich, equally. It was an easy choice.”
Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, has worked with Merrell from the beginning. They initially went to Harris County but were rejected, so they have worked from the south up, picking off cities and organizations individually. “We started giving presentations and have been steadily picking up endorsements ever since. We’ve got more than 50 resolutions of support now. It’s to the point we feel like it’s inevitable,” Mitchell says.
SSPEED joined forces with Texas A&M University at Galveston two years ago. However, Rice professors haven’t stopped lobbying for smaller, cheaper, less-invasive projects that can be built quickly and without any federal money. SSPEED’s “mid-bay” proposal, featuring a gate across the Houston Ship Channel at San Leon, got little attention, though, Bedient acknowledges. “Merrell and the Ike Dike people have a really strong push. Having that kind of backing helps,” he says.
Meanwhile, Blackburn notes that the Ike Dike project is short on details. “I can tell you how Centennial Gate is going to go. I can tell you how ‘mid-bay’ is going to be structured, but I cannot tell you what the gate structure on Bolivar Road will be, or where the levees will be on Galveston Island for Ike Dike, or any real details about the Ike Dike. They’ve got the political traction to do this, but they’ve gotten that traction without ever putting out a detailed design.”
The other question is what Galveston Bay will be like after the coastal spine is built. Whooping cranes, sea turtles, shrimp, oysters, fish and bottlenose dolphins are all dependent on the health of Galveston Bay. If the bay’s salinity shifts or its water level drops, that effects the lives of everything in and around the bay. An enormous gate that changes how the water flows in and out of the bay might just cause a few changes to the bay system, Brandt Mannchen, a longtime member of the Houston Sierra Club, says.
Mannchen is skeptical of the Ike Dike. If Merrell’s barrier gate is planted on the Bolivar Roads Pass, it may reduce the amount of water flowing by 40 percent or more, according to a TAMU-Galveston interim report issued in 2015. If the amount of water flowing in and out of the bay changes, the salinity of the bay is expected to drop, according to a Delft University of Technology study from 2011.
Changing both the amount of water and the rate at which the bay waters move alters the way sediment is deposited around the bay system, and could transform how the delicate ecosystems of the bay, the marshes, the wetlands, the river and the bayou systems that link up to the bay all work together. “You’re talking about a massive change to the ecosystem of Galveston Bay, and nobody is looking at the environmental implications of this,” Mannchen says. “We think this whole thing is incredibly premature.”
Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, has also been hesitant about the Ike Dike. “I asked Bill Merrell for some clear idea what this would mean for Galveston Bay, since that’s what we’re working to protect, and he couldn’t tell me, because a lot of that work hasn’t been done yet; those questions are only beginning to be asked,” Stokes says. “It’s far too early to make the Ike Dike the main plan. There’s so much we don’t know.”
Mannchen has been trying to counter the sheer number of official endorsements for the Ike Dike by meeting with politicians and government officials to raise his concerns. “What they’re trying to do is make this a silver-bullet solution that everyone has signed off on,” Mannchen says. “We feel like the lone voice crying in the wilderness.”
Mannchen is pushing for a less costly, less-invasive option, like SSPEED’s original concept, the Centennial Gate. “It seems smarter to look at the whole board and see where the sensitive areas are, what shouldn’t be changed, but they don’t seem interested in doing that. They only talk about the Ike Dike,” Mannchen says.
But it’s possible none of these projects will get built. The public support for Ike Dike hasn’t translated into state or federal funding, Merrell says. In fact, neither academic group has received state or federal money to study these issues.
The coastal spine is going to be a tough project to build, because different local, state and federal interests all have to come together to make it happen, says Robert Eckels, a former Harris County judge who has been working on the board of the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District since then-governor Rick Perry created the six-county entity in response to Hurricane Ike.
“The real challenge is getting everyone to coalesce around one plan. If you have 12 people working on this, you’ll get 12 different ideas, but with 12 different ideas, nothing will ever get funded,” Eckels says. “We need to come together to even have a chance of getting Congress to give us funding for this.”
The Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District has come up with its own plan, but the storm surge district only has the power to study coastal barrier projects, not build them, Eckels says. “The Ike Dike idea is too big for a single local entity to handle alone,” Eckels says. “The issue only affects a portion of Texas, so the state won’t step in and Congress will most likely only intercede if it’s in the wake of a natural disaster.”
That may be the only way to move forward. During a hearing of the Joint Interim Committee to Study a Coastal Barrier System at the state legislature earlier this month, Christopher Toomey, vice president of AECOM Engineering, told the committee Congress probably won’t pay for the Ike Dike unless it’s in response to another devastating hurricane. “Securing congressional funding is becoming more and more challenging,” Toomey says. “Our concern is that broad support will only materialize after a disaster.”
But Congress also may allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to skip the environmental review and to expedite the entire process so that the details get overlooked. Projects get built faster this way, but not always wisely. “It looks harmless,” Blackburn says. “It looks like a positive thing, but there could be consequences to changing Galveston Bay in such a fundamental way, and they may not even get looked at if Congress just signs off after the next big storm. None of these projects are without impact; none of these ideas are without consequences.”
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Congress pulled more than $14 billion in emergency funding to build a coastal barrier. The project was completed quickly, but New Orleans is still situated like a fish bowl and the Corps now calls these structures “risk-reduction systems” because “flood control” implies these systems will stop the water from rising during a storm surge. Plus, some Louisiana communities are still refusing to pay maintenance costs.
After Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012, Congress gave the Corps more than $3 billion to reinforce the East Coast. The Army Corps of Engineers spent millions of dollars allocated for Sandy on putting the New Jersey coastline back together. The sand the Corps dumped on the beaches is steadily being washed away.
Merrell is focused on ensuring his plan is the one everybody knows about, the one that gets approved. In June, the Gulf Coast Community Prevention and Recovery District issued a report favoring Merrell’s concepts — although its version isn’t an exact copy of Merrell’s, which displeased him. In August, Turner sent out a letter supporting the Ike Dike. If Houston City Council ever votes to endorse the plan — it has voted against the proposal twice so far — Houston will be one of the last cities in the area to sign on.
Senator Cornyn and Representative Weber have filed legislation to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to use studies already conducted by Rice, Texas A&M University at Galveston, the Gulf Coast Community Disaster and Protection District and any other entity taking on the coastal barrier protection question to allow the Corps to speed up its reviews.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
In early October representatives from all of the groups gathered at the state capitol in Austin to testify before the Joint Committee of Coastal Barrier Protection in a hearing that lasted more than three hours. Each group spoke about the benefits and flaws of its preferred plan. SSPEED representatives tried to be diplomatic, while the people representing Texas A&M University-Galveston didn’t bother to pretend to value any concept outside of their own. State Senator Larry Taylor chairs the committee, and he spoke up in favor of the Ike Dike, even as he hastily reminded everyone that the state will not be paying a dime for it.
“Of course not,” Leonard Waterworth, the former head of the Galveston District of the Army Corps of Engineers and former executive director of the Port of Houston, who is now working with Merrell, says smoothly. “We’ll let the federal government do it when — I mean if — it becomes necessary.”
For Merrell, his way is the right one, because it’s the only option that he says attempts to protect everyone. After Hurricane Ike, the fabric of life in Galveston changed. The guys who used to eat out of his trash cans — one left him a Christmas card thanking him for putting “good stuff” in his bins — were gone after the storm. The housing projects he’d driven by every day for years, once vital with families hanging out on their front porches and kids playing in the yards, were torn down in the wake of the hurricane. Harris, the crusty veteran, who was a local legend in town, survived the storm, but he was moved to a nursing home in Carrollton, just outside of Dallas, after Hurricane Ike. He died less than a year later.
When Merrell learned Harris had died, he couldn’t stop thinking about how Harris spent most of his life in Galveston but had to live his last days somewhere else. “It wasn’t right, what happened after the storm. These other ideas protect the Houston Ship Channel or this part of the bay or that one, but they don’t do anything for the people and the way of life — they don’t protect that. But the Ike Dike does. I know it will do the right things.”