Image: Fire and storm surge during Ike
David J. Phillip  /  AP
Damage from Hurricane Ike included this surreal scene on Galveston Island: fire destroying a home along a beach swamped by the storm surge on Sept. 12, 2008.
updated 7/14/2009 7:00:17 PM ET 2009-07-14T23:00:17

It has been dubbed the "Ike Dike" — a 55-mile barrier, 17 feet high, that would be built along the Texas Gulf Coast to fend off the sort of devastating flooding inflicted by last year's Hurricane Ike.

The grand idea for what would probably be the biggest seawall in the nation faces some major hurdles itself, chief among them a price tag of up to $4 billion.

But with thousands of people still in temporary housing 10 months after the storm, many say it is time to find a permanent means of protecting Galveston and the rest of the Houston metropolitan area.

"Every time you knock me down, I will get back up and rebuild my city," said William Merrell, the Texas A&M professor in Galveston who dreamed up the idea. After Ike, "I thought, 'How can we keep from doing it again?'"

Merrell's solution is to extend Galveston's existing 10-mile seawall — first built after the Great Storm of 1900 killed at least 6,000 people — with a series of walls and retractable floodgates that would extend from one end of Galveston Bay to the other. The gates could be closed to block the entrance to the bay when a storm approaches.

Modeled after Dutch system
The project is modeled after the world's largest flood protection system, in the Netherlands. The details are still being worked out, but the idea has already won the support of some members of a state panel studying disaster preparedness.

Project backers, who hope to secure federal funding for the barrier, say it would save homes and lives among the Houston metropolitan area's 5.7 million residents. They also say it would help protect the nation's biggest, most vital concentration of oil refineries and chemical plants.

But detractors say the dike could inflict environmental damage, obstruct the ocean views of some residents and end up trapping floodwaters in the bay. They also point out that massive government projects are often beset with huge cost overruns, delays and bureaucracy.

Even if the project were to gain approval, construction could take a generation. A proposal of this scale would have to be built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which could take three or four years just to complete a feasibility study. Congress would then need to approve funding for the project. And it could take 20 years to build it, said Col. David Weston, commanding officer of the Corps' Galveston district.

Texas isn't the only place considering battling nature with brute engineering force: Earlier this year, engineers floated a proposal to build giant movable barriers to protect New York City from hurricanes and rising sea levels caused by global warming.

Ike's storm surge of up to 20 feet shattered thousands of homes on Galveston Island and nearby areas. It also fouled farmland and ranches with saltwater.

"In order to justify something like this, it just can't be vacation homes," Merrell said. "It has to be looking at protecting the entire bay, people's lives and all the infrastructure."

The barrier would most likely be built of concrete. Most sections would be on land, running between the beach and the oceanfront homes and businesses. But the floodgates would be out in the water, across various openings in the coastline.

Protect petrochemical complex?
The Ike Dike would be justified simply by the protection it would offer the $15 billion petrochemical complex along the Houston Ship Channel, said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership. The complex provides much of the country's fuel and industrial chemicals.

"If it were to flood there, you would not bring back those facilities for at least six months," Mitchell said.

Bill King, a member of the state task force looking at disaster recovery, said the Ike Dike's scope seemed unrealistic to him until he weighed its cost against the more than $29 billion in damage Ike caused in Texas.

"I've become more convinced it's at least something we need to take a hard look at," said King, former mayor of the Galveston Bay community of Kemah.

Environmental concerns
But King and others also worry about how the Ike Dike might affect fish migration and salinity levels in Galveston Bay.

Slideshow: Hurricane havoc Mary Kelly, vice president of rivers and deltas at the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, suggested authorities are going about it the wrong way. She said smaller levees should be constructed to protect critical structures like petrochemical plants, and the state should rethink where it allows people to build homes on the Texas coast.

"We really need a public debate on what realistically we ought to be doing along the coastline in terms of discouraging people from living in vulnerable areas. We can't keep paying these billions of dollars in damages on these losses," said Kelly, who is also a member of the state task force looking at disaster recovery.

Phil Bedient, director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, said authorities should consider a more natural approach — letting marshes and barrier islands re-establish themselves to help hold back floodwaters. But Bedient said the Ike Dike merits further study.

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