When Hurricane Ike landed in 2008, Bill Merrell took refuge on the second floor of a historic brick building in downtown Galveston, Texas, along with his wife, their daughter, grandson, and two Chihuahuas. Constant winds of 110 km / h attacked the building. Seawater flooded the ground floor to a depth of over 8 feet. One night, Merrell saw an almost full moon and realized they had entered the eye of a hurricane.
Years earlier, Merrell, a physical oceanographer at Texas A&M University in Galveston, toured the giant eastern fence of storm surges Scheldt, a nearly six-mile-long rampart that prevents North Sea storms from flooding the southern Dutch coast. As Ike roared outside, Merrell kept thinking about the barrier. “The next morning I started sketching what I thought would look reasonable here,” he said, “and it turned out to be pretty close to what the Dutch would do.”
These sketches were the beginning of Ike Dike, a coastal barrier proposal designed to protect Galveston Bay. The basic idea: combining a huge gate over the main entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, known as the Bolivarian Road, with many miles of high sea walls.
Directly across Galveston, at least 15 people died that night on the Bolivar Peninsula, and the storm destroyed about 3,600 homes there. The bodies were still missing the following year when Merrell began promoting Ikea Dike, but, he said, the idea was “really ridiculed quite universally”. Politicians disliked its costs, environmentalists worried about its impacts, and no one was convinced it would work.
Merrell persisted. Returning to the Netherlands, he visited experts from Delft University and asked for their support. Over the next few years, Dutch and U.S. academic researchers conducted dozens of studies on Galveston Bay options, while Merrell and his allies garnered the support of local communities, business leaders, and politicians.
In 2014, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers teamed up with the state to study alternatives such as Galveston stocks, similar to Ikea Dike. After many repetitions, the accounts for the establishment of the management structure for the barrier of 26.2 billion dollars proposal, which the corps developed in conjunction with the Texas General Office, recently passed by the Texas House and the Senate. In September, the corps will submit its recommendations to the US Congress, which will need to approve funds for the project.
No one can guess the exact fate of the barrier proposal, given its enormous cost. And as sea levels rise and storms intensify with global climate change, Houston is far from the only U.S. coastal metropolitan region at serious risk. Billions of dollars worth of 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 shores. The initiative for Houston, the fifth largest U.S. subway area and the vulnerable heart of the petrochemical industry, highlights difficult decisions for coastal megaprojects, which must balance societal needs, engineering capabilities, environmental protection and costs.
Meanwhile, the seas are constantly rising. “There is significant tension between the need to address these issues and do so quickly,” said Carly Foster, a resilience expert at Arcadis Global Design Consultancy, “and also properly.”