Houston, Texas – Community and business leaders gathered for an engaging and provocative conversation on “SURGING WATER: Storm Surge Protection and Response” at the Center for Houston’s Future August Summer Salon, the third and final installment in the series devoted to water-related issues held at the Junior League of Houston on Wednesday. Dannenbaum Engineering Corp. was the Summer Salon Gold Sponsor.
Moderator Joshua Adams, Director of Technology and Operations for Houston Public Media, opened the conversation by noting the $30 billion in damage to the Houston region caused by 2005’s Hurricane Ike and solicited the panel's outlook on the current state of surge protection plans for the region.
The panel of experts included Len Waterworth, Executive Professor of Maritime Administration, Texas A&M University/Galveston; Monty Heins, Operations Site Manager, Dow Houston; Philip Bedient, Director of Rice University’s SSPEED Center for Severe Storm Prediction; and Christopher Sallese, Coastal Programs Manager, Dannenbaum Engineering.
The discussion ranged across a variety of issues pertaining to how to best protect the Houston-Galveston region from hurricane-induced surging water.
The panelists agreed that stakeholder opinion has coalesced around a coastal spine project estimated to cost roughly $10 billion, and that the issue of storm surge protection is currently more a political matter than a technical one. Chris Sallese noted, "We need political leadership in Austin to get the plan, then leadership in Washington to fund it," and Philip Bedient summed up the panel's view, arguing, "It's time to stop talking and start moving forward . . . we're tired of doing studies." Each speaker also addressed specific issues relating to their expertise:
· Len Waterworth called for urgent action to protect the region from hurricane storm surges, observing that, since Ike in 2005, the Houston region is currently experiencing the longest "hurricane drought" in its recorded history. He also observed, "We're at a tipping point – we now have our politicians talking about it . . . saying we need to do something."
· Philip Bedient drew attention to how other U.S. cities have successfully worked with the federal government to build hurricane protection infrastructure. Bedient identified New Orleans and New York City as examples of how the resources needed to complete flood protection projects usually become available only after a major disaster has occurred. He further noted that other cities have received more assistance at the federal level, noting, "Only in Houston was [storm surge protection] carried by private money – not New Orleans, not New York."
· Monty Heins framed the matter as an issue affecting not just our region, but the nation's economy and security as well. Asserting that "We cannot afford to be reactive," Heins noted that the whole nation could be disrupted in the event of a direct hurricane hit on the Houston Ship Channel, which supports the largest U.S. petrochemical manufacturing hub. He noted the sobering fact that 60 percent of the nation’s military fuels are produced along the Ship Channel.
· Christopher Sallese focused on the need for political leaders to champion storm surge protection efforts. Lamenting that "The state has not shown an interest in taking a lead on this $11-14 billion project," Sallese noted that Houston has spent the past eight years creating plans for how to protect the region, whereas New Orleans was able to begin construction after only six months of planning.
Audience members chimed in with pointed queries and observations for the panel. Among them, Jim Dannenbaum, President and CEO of Dannenbaum Engineering, noted that the formula that worked for New York City post-Hurricane Sandy – with city, state, and federal governments each contributing a third of the $15 billion price tag, may be difficult to duplicate in Houston, given current legislative and budget priorities at the state and local levels. Bill King, a candidate for mayor of Houston last year and a former Houston Chronicle columnist, called for decisive political action, noting the lack of progress he has seen since he began writing on storm surge protection in 2002.
Among the crowd were Keiji Asakura, Brent Benoit, Anne Clutterbuck, Michael Bloom, Kelly Frels, Zachary Hodges, Michael Jhin, Ruthanne Mefford, General Charles McClain, Kim Ruth, Bob Stokes, Holly Thorson and Ed Wolff.
Houston Public Media was media sponsor for the Summer Salon series.
Photos by Christy VanZandt, Center for Houston’s Future.
Center for Houston’s Future, The Region’s Think Tank, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that works to solve our region’s toughest problems by providing impactful research, defining innovative strategies, and engaging diverse leaders.