The Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, Inc., the six county coalition that was formed to consider options for storm surge protection along the upper Texas Gulf Coast, held its first meeting on Tuesday in the Galveston County Commissioners Courtroom. County Judges from Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, Harris and Orange counties; and Jeff Branick, who is unopposed as the Democratic Party nominee for election to Jefferson County Judge, were in attendance.
"This corporate entity was established by the coastal counties of the upper Texas coast to look and see if there are alternatives, if there are ways for us to try to find some feasible surge protection remedies - for storm surges that come and go and hit the upper Texas coast, said Galveston County Judge Jim Yarbrough, who was elected chair of the group. "I think we all agree that with strengthened windstorm codes - deeper pilings, more nails in the roof, all the things that the windstorm pool and codes have delivered - we handle wind events much better today than we did 10, 15, 20 years ago."
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Branick was elected vice chair of the group. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett was elected secretary/treasurer and Bea Bentley of Yarbrough's staff was named assistant secretary/treasurer. Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels was named president of the corporation.
Eckels explained that the six county group was proposed by the Texas Governor's Office after a series of public hearings on the recovery from Hurricane Ike. Listen: RealPlayer MP3
"In the process of that discussion, the idea of a surge protection facility came up," Eckels said. "It was affectionately referred to as the Ike Dike."
Former Kemah mayor Bill King, who is a board member of the Galveston Bay Foundation, quoted Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney, in opening his remarks to the county judges.
"Jim Blackburn has said that this decision is going to be the most important decision we will make in the next century, about how this region is developed," King said. "I think he may be right about that. There are tremendous implications of it. The one thing I don't think we can do is do nothing."
Colonel Len Waterworth, president of Dannenbaum Engineering and a the former district engineer of the United States Army Corps of Engineers in Galveston, recalled helicopter tours he would give visiting officials during his tenure at the Corps.
"We would fly 53 miles up the Houston/Galveston Ship Channel and look at the petrochemical industry, we would look at NASA, we would look at TMC (Texas Medical Center) and then we would fly over and go on to the Sabine/Neches (Waterway) and do the same thing, no more than 50 miles away and start looking at the petrochemical industry and the industry along that particular waterway, and fly back around," Waterworth said. "Every time I would take a Congressional delegation member up, a staffer or the member himself, they would say 'I didn't realize so much national capacity was sitting right here on the Texas coastline'."
Yarbrough asked each of the judges to comment. Listen: RealPlayer MP3
"Orange County has been working already toward a study for our area, for our geographical location," said Orange County Judge Carl Thibodeaux. "Because, let's face it, with all six counties, each and every one of us has a different geographical issue, logistical differences, in trying to build a protection system."
Thobodeaux noted that the State of Louisiana is also working on storm surge issues.
"We are in communication with Cameron and Calcasieu Parish because what we do on our end is going to effect that particular area of Louisiana and we may need them in a partnership issue. When we start getting federal dollars, we do not want their Senators and Congressmen battling us because of a little territorial deal."
"We all mean so much to each other," said Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia. "We are a region that is very important to each other, but also to Texas and the United States. I know we have a lot of issues to work through and I am glad we are moving forward."
"I appreciate the opportunity to meet with y'all and explore any possibility that will help our citizens and protect them in the future," said Brazoria County Judge Joe King.
"I am optimistic that this group will come up with long-term strategies to address the issues that we have had to confront as a result of natural disasters," Branick said, noting that Jefferson County has a special hazard in that the dune system was destroyed by Hurricane Ike. "As we sit here today we have about 62,000 acres of marshland, comprised of McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge that is under continued salt water intrusion, even at normal high tides."
Emmett stressed that the group is currently seeking funding for a study of the proposed storm surge system and is not committed to spending money on any specific construction project.
Yarbrough gave special praise for Dr. Bill Merrell of Texas A&M University at Galveston, who attended the meeting, but did not speak, for first suggesting Ike Dike.
"There is no question in my mind that because of his efforts, we are here today," Yarbrough said.
Ross Margraves was legal counsel for the group, but a recommendation to name Dannenbaum Engineering the general engineering consultant was delayed for consideration at a later meeting.
The next meeting will be held on June 1 at 1:30 p.m. in the Galveston County Commissioners Courtroom.