When Hurricane Ike made landfall in 2008, Bill Merrell took refuge on the second floor of a historic brick building in downtown Galveston, Texas with his wife, daughter, grandson and two chihuahuas. Sustained 110 mph winds lashed the building. Sea water flooded the ground floor to a depth of over 8 feet. Once overnight, Merrell saw an almost full moon and realized that they had entered the eye of the hurricane.
Years earlier, Merrell, a physical oceanographer at Texas A&M University in Galveston, had visited the gigantic Eastern Scheldt Storm Barrier, a nearly 10 km long bulwark that prevents North Sea storms from d ‘flood the south coast of the Netherlands. As Ike roared outside, Merrell couldn’t stop thinking about the barrier. “The next morning I started sketching out what I thought was reasonable here,” he said, “and it turned out to be pretty close to what the Dutch would have done.”
These sketches were the start of the Ike Dyke, a proposed coastal barrier intended to protect Galveston Bay. The basic idea: to combine huge gates through the main entrance to the bay of the Gulf of Mexico, known as the Bolivar roads, with many kilometers of high dikes.
Just across from Galveston, at least 15 people died that night on the Bolivar Peninsula and the storm destroyed some 3,600 homes there. Bodies were still missing the following year when Merrell started promoting Ike Dike, but, he said, the idea “was really ridiculed in a pretty universal way.” Politicians didn’t like its costs, environmentalists worried about its impacts and no one was convinced it would work.
Merrell persisted. Back in the Netherlands, he visited experts from the University of Delft and got their support. Over the following years, Dutch and American university researchers conducted dozens of studies on Galveston Bay options, while Merrell and his allies garnered support from local communities, business leaders and politicians.
In 2014, the US Army Corps of Engineers partnered with the state to study Ike Dike-type alternatives for Galveston Bay. After many iterations, bills to establish a governance structure for the $ 26.2 billion barrier proposal, which the Corps developed alongside the Texas General Land Office, recently passed both the Texas House and Senate. In September, the Corps will present its recommendations to the US Congress, which will need to approve funding for the project.
No one can guess the exact fate of the barrier proposal, given its huge price tag. And as sea levels rise and storms intensify with global climate change, Houston is far from the only coastal metropolitan area in the United States at serious risk. Multi-billion dollar coastal megaprojects are already underway or under consideration from San Francisco to Miami to New York.
President Joe Biden’s new $ 2 trillion national infrastructure initiative specifically calls for projects on the country’s besieged coastlines. The initiative for Houston, the fifth largest metropolitan area in the United States and the vulnerable heart of the petrochemical industry, highlights the tough decisions for coastal megaprojects, which must balance societal needs, engineering capabilities, environmental protections and costs.
Meanwhile, the sea continues to rise. “There’s a significant tension between having to fix these issues and getting it done quickly,” said Carly Foster, resilience expert at global design consultancy Arcadis, “and also getting it right”.