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Houston-Galveston region could be better protected from impact of hurricanes and severe storms

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HOUSTON – (Nov. 12, 2015) – New structural and nonstructural solutions could better protect the Houston-Galveston region from the impact of hurricanes and severe storms, according to a research paper by energy, engineering and environmental law experts at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The paper, "Legal Issues in Hurricane Damage Risk Abatement," examines various alternatives for mitigating floods and storm damage and analyzes the federal regulations that could apply in seeking funding for the proposals. It was co-authored by Jim Blackburn, a professor in the practice of environmental law at Rice and Baker Institute Rice Faculty Scholar; Regina Buono, the Baker Botts Fellow in Energy and Environmental Regulatory Affairs at the institute's Center for Energy Studies; and Larry Dunbar, project manager for Rice's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED).

Past discussions of hurricane-protection options for the Houston-Galveston region have focused on constructing a floodgate at the mouth of either Galveston Bay or the Houston Ship Channel. In the latest analysis of options that federal, state and local officials might consider, SSPEED experts this summer issued a report offering a third alternative: a mid-bay gate halfway between the previously discussed sites.

"It is impossible to discuss mitigating these hurricane-surge damage issues without taking federal environmental law and policy into account, particularly if federal money is being relied upon, a point that seems to be missed by many local advocates," said Blackburn, who is co-director of SSPEED. "At least two alternatives exist that offer substantial protection of industry and residences in the bay's high-risk zone, but the law and policies relate to each in different ways. The mid-bay alternative might be able to be funded with local and/or state monies, whereas the lower-bay alternative almost certainly will require federal money, thereby more directly invoking federal environmental laws and funding policies."

The authors said the vulnerability of the U.S. coastline to severe storms is clear in wake of hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Ike and Wilma, which collectively amounted to more than $200 billion in economic loss, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Houston-Galveston region alone experienced more than $25 billion in economic loss from Hurricane Ike in 2008, despite the fact that the greatest impact missed the region and instead hit east of Galveston Bay, according to SSPEED.

In the aftermath of Ike, SSPEED has been studying hurricane-surge damage reduction strategies under a grant from the Houston Endowment. The goal of this work is to develop and evaluate structural and nonstructural alternatives to create a plan capable of significantly reducing hurricane-surge damages in the region.

Blackburn said that more generally, the goal of this paper is to discuss evolving federal flood-damage reduction policy and the increased importance and integration of ecological service features into project design. "The paper presents the Texas Coastal Exchange, a nonstructural, ecological services-based flood-damage mitigation concept that has great potential not only for Galveston Bay but across the U.S.," he said. "This ecological services orientation of the federal government has only recently emerged under the Obama administration and is a major refocusing of flood-damage reduction policy at the federal level. The creation of a market-based ecological services transaction system is an excellent way to integrate emerging federal policy creatively with market forces to achieve long-term surge protection as well as a response to sea-level rise, which is not emphasized in the paper."

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To interview the authors, contact Jeff Falk, associate director of national media relations at Rice, at [email protected] or 713-348-6775.

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Related materials:

Research paper: http://bakerinstitute.org/media/files/files/874d3358/CES-pub-HurricaneProtection-111015.pdf.

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