Impact of Storm Surge on Coastal Communities

15 May 2023
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This article explores the impact of a Category 5 hurricane to the Houston Ship Channel, and plans to avoid storm surge in this area.


Sea levels are expected to rise 10 to 12 inches by 2050, creating a profound shift in coastal flooding over the next 30 years by causing tide and storm surge heights to reach further inland, according to the 2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Additionally by 2050, moderate flooding is expected to occur more than 10 times as frequently as it does currently, on average. A study from Tulane University indicates that sea levels along the U.S. Southeast and Gulf coasts have risen at record-breaking rates over the last 12 years—approximately a half an inch per year since 2010.

When Hurricane Ike hit Texas in 2008, it caused an estimated $33 billion in damages, with $29 billion in Texas alone.

Dr. Philip Bedient, Herman Brown profession of engineering in Rice University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, believes the location of a hurricane’s landfall could have a dramatic effect on storm surge especially the Houston Ship Channel.

If a hurricane were a direct hit on the Houston Ship Channel, there could be $60 to $100 billion in damages due to the hurricane surge exposure of a significant amount of the nation’s refineries and petroleum reserves along the Houston Ship Channel, according to Bedient. Ultimately, a Category 5 hurricane surge event would be a major impact to the national economy and energy supply. 

The potential impact of a Category 5 hurricane on Galveston Bay is the primary basis for the proposed Galveston Bay Park Plan (GBPP) project in Galveston, Texas. The goal of the project is to create a linked collection of islands to form a storm surge barrier system to protect the ship channel and the west side of Galveston Bay. The barrier would also provide every day benefits improving bay area habitat, improving water quality, and providing much needed and rare public accessibility for recreation on the Bay.

The GBPP is an in-bay barrier 25 feet above sea level that extends from near Houston Point in Chambers County, crossing into the bay just below Cedar Bayou out to Atkinson Island, and then running along the east side of the Houston Ship Channel to a point across from San Leon near Red Fish Island just north of where the Trinity Cut Ship Channel intersects the Houston Ship Channel, and then running on the west side of the channel and then over to the Texas City Dike.

A gate structure similar in scope to the famous Maeslant Barrier in Rotterdam will span the Houston Ship Channel. Five additional gates are planned along the barrier to accommodate existing channels to allow for the passage of recreational craft and drainage to pass through the barrier. These gates will also provide for circulation around the barrier between both sides of the Bay.

The barrier is being constructed from dredge material to facilitate the additional widening or deepening of the Houston Ship Channel. The improvements would add to the current Project 11 widening to make currently dangerous ship traffic within the channel much safer. The effort would also facilitate larger container vessels into Barbour’s Cut Terminal and Baytown. The barrier will also double as a dredge material containment area which will be transformed into recreation areas that can support recreational leases for seasonal use for birdwatching, fishing, swimming, and other open park uses. The plan would mitigate impacted oyster reefs replacing them with much larger reefs in areas that would account for the changing salinity in the Bay due to the change in fresh water coming into the Bay. Additionally, the plan would create new coastal wetlands and marshes to help add to the habitat and help clean the water in the bay.

The GBPP is one part of an overall Galveston Bay plan that includes the Coastal Spine barrier that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is currently fostering through the environmental impact studies phase to create the seaside barrier along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula. Compatible with the USACE plan, GBPP will replace the planned improvements along the west side of the bay, saving that project an estimated $2 billion, and eliminating the impact on private and commercial properties that are part of the USACE plan.

The GBPP is currently being evaluated to determine if it can be folded into the Texas Coastal Surge Protection Plan or otherwise funded locally. The current goal is to be in position to begin construction in 2030 or sooner.

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