The six-county district formed after Hurricane Ike to protect the upper Texas Gulf Coast from a massive storm surge has stalled for lack of money, but new efforts have emerged to avert a disastrous inundation.
The Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District met twice in 2010 and has since been inactive.
"I don't know how useful it would be for us to meet in the absence of a funding mechanism," said Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick, the district's vice chairman.
In the absence of action by the district, two separate efforts are under way to prevent a storm surge that could cripple the nation's energy supply if it overwhelmed the Houston or Port Arthur areas.
One initiative aims to revive plans for a massive dike and flood gate system to protect Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula, and the concept has grown to encompass the Sabine Pass area. The cost has been estimated at $3 billion or more.
A competing plan by a Rice University organization known as SSPEED -- the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center -- has come up with storm protection ideas directed solely at the Houston area. It believes its proposals could be developed more cheaply than the massive "Ike Dike" proposed by Texas A&M-Galveston marine sciences professor William Merrell.
"We need to have a very thorough and public debate on it," Merrell said.
Jim Blackburn, SSPEED member and environmental law professor at Rice, agreed: "We're happy to debate the Ike Dike and what its alternatives are," Blackburn said. "This is a true community decision point."
Has luck begat lazy?
That discussion has been too long in coming, said former Kemah Mayor Bill King, one of the incorporators of the Protection and Recovery District and a member of the governor's committee that recommended its creation.
Computer models show that the Ike storm surge that struck in September 2008 would have devastated the largest petrochemical complex in the nation if the eye of the storm had made landfall 20 miles west. In 2005, Hurricane Rita suddenly veered east from a path aimed directly at Galveston Island only hours before its landfall at Sabine Pass.
"I'm concerned we will never do anything serious about this until we have a bad storm and kill a bunch of people," King said.
Last year the SSPEED center proposed building a dike to protect the eastern, most densely developed part of Galveston Island; a 20-mile levee paralleling Galveston Bay along Texas 146; a flood gate protecting the Houston Ship Channel at Hartmann Bridge; and a 130-mile national recreation area to make the Gulf coast economy more compatible with inevitable severe storms.
Among these ideas, the recreation area is the only one compatible with the Ike Dike, Blackburn and Merrell agree.
The SSPEED center enlisted former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III to lobby Congress to create the Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area, which would include Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.
"It has the value of rethinking, of basically restructuring the economy of the low lying areas to be compatible with inundation," Blackburn said. A study released in January said the recreation area would create 1,200 jobs and $46 million in local sales its first year.
Participation by private property owners would be voluntary and no tax money would be used in the recreation area's creation. Residents and business owners would write regulations aimed at developing an economic model for the area that could survive a storm.
'Ike Dike' debate
Merrell's 2009 Ike Dike proposal, meanwhile, is gaining new adherents, like Galveston Mayor Lewis Rosen. Rosen wants to use $250,000 from a special city sales-tax fund to study building the dike. Rosen did not respond to a request for comment, but Assistant City Manager Brian Maxwell said the mayor believes the dike is needed to protect the island economy.
Branick and Galveston County Judge Mark Henry favor the Ike Dike. Henry believes the money to complete the project can eventually be found.
Blackburn, however, said the Ike Dike is too expensive.
"In this economic climate, the federal government is not going to come through with money and it is likely to engender a huge environmental conflict as well," Blackburn said. The Hartmann Bridge gate could be built with a local bond issue, he said.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the Ike Dike "isn't going to happen" and called Rosen's effort "a waste of $250,000."
Merrell countered that the SSPEED dikes would leave bayfront communities like Kemah and Bacliff unprotected and force storm waters into other areas.
King said that Legislature needs to provide money to make either plan a reality.