How Twenty Miles Saved a City (The Hurricane Ike Edition, Part 1)

Posted on September 22, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

While people in most parts of the United States welcome the arrival of summer, those of us living along the Gulf Coast and in the coastal communities of the Southeast note the season’s arrival with a certain amount of anxiety, and mark its passing with a sense of relief. It’s not so much the heat and the humidity, although we (or at least I) look forward to that about as much as a Chicagoan pines for the frigid winds blowing off of Lake Michigan on a January morning. The real source of worry is that we must once again endure that meteorological game of Russian Roulette known as hurricane season.

Imagine for a moment having to keep one eye on the tropics, making judgments of where a churning storm might land, how strong it might be at landfall, and whether you and your family should shelter in place or evacuate. And if a storm does strike, will anyone be hurt? What will become of your home? Your neighborhood? Your city? Will everyone and everything survive? Or this time, will it all be washed away? Hurricane season is serious business. It’s no wonder that “summertime” music comes from places like southern California, rather than the otherwise rich Gulf coast musical mecca of New Orleans.

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, September 13th, the eye of Hurricane Ike made landfall on the east end of Galveston Island in Texas, and pushed inland across the Houston metropolitan area, following a path generally parallel to but a few miles to the east of Interstate 45. Houston was pummeled, and a week later half the city was still without power. The City of Galveston was devastated by the storm, so much so that the remaining people who chose to ride out the storm were ordered to leave. The communities of Bolivar Peninsula , just a short ferry ride from the northeastern tip of Galveston, simply do not exist any longer. They are gone.

People who live with the reality of hurricanes are well aware of hurricane geography. The counter-clockwise circulation of the storm means that the wettest side of the system is the eastern side, with water picked-up from the ocean and dumped onto land disproportionately in the northeast quadrant. This so-called “dirty” side of the storm often brings tornadoes, further adding to the destruction. Worse still, this is the side of the storm that creates the largest storm surge, where a dome of seawater is literally pushed inland by the strong winds. The storm surge in Galveston was 12 feet. The highest point on the island is 17 feet, which is the seawall that protects a portion of the city from the Gulf (prior to construction of the seawall in 1902, the highest point was less than 9 feet above sea level). Waves crashed over the seawall, but the full force of the surge was blunted by the seawall on the eastern side of the island. The west end had no such protection.

Had Hurricane Ike made landfall literally twenty miles to the west, I might very well be writing about Galveston in the past tense. The predicted storm surge to the east of the eye was 20 feet, which would have overtopped Galveston’s seawall and the entire island. Instead, the lesser-populated Bolivar Peninsula took the peak surge, and will never be the same. Progressing inland, moving the eye just 20 miles westward would have put the most densely populated portions of Houston on the dirty side of the storm, with the peak surge thus pushing into Galveston Bay and some of the Houston-area bayous, creating the potential for serious flooding. Most of us in Houston are actually feeling pretty lucky, all things considered.

I will devote a few entries for this blog to lessons from Hurricane Ike, but I’d like to briefly flirt with the messy topic of professional responsibility. In my previous job as an urban planning consultant, I personally billed quite a number of hours to projects related to proposing or studying the creation of special districts to encourage development in a number of Texas coastal communities, including Galveston. The Galveston districts were on the west side of the island, beyond the protection of the seawall. And therein you see the dilemma: where and under what circumstances is development appropriate, what role can and should government take in controlling development (especially on barrier islands), and what are the obligations of a professional consultant even if development in such locations has the backing of government?

These are not easy questions to answer, and in the wake of the storm, I’ve not been able to escape them. When I ask myself what a sustainability professional might have done differently than an ordinary consultant, I believe the answers can be derived from some of the basic characteristics of the profession:

  • First, we are conversation starters. We don’t necessarily have the answers, but we raise critical issues of environmental consequence.
  • Second, we connect the dots, whether it’s with issues or with making sure the right people are speaking with each other. Getting the right people to the table can be critical to bringing about more sustainable outcomes.
  • Third, we often frame discussions further into the future than general practice, which allows issues of longer-term risks to not be entirely drowned-out by shorter-term interests.
  • Fourth, the nature of our profession is that in many instances we have a particular point of view or framework based on ecological principles that drives decision-making, which keeps us from playing both sides of an issue (depending on who is paying the bills) as readily as a typical consultant.
  • And fifth, we are systems-thinkers rather than silo-thinkers, and that makes it harder for us to disassociate ourselves from unsustainable outcomes by saying that it wasn’t our job to consider “the big picture”.

With that said, perhaps a sustainability consultant would have approached this issue of the creation of incentives to spur development on an unprotected section of a barrier island by first asking whether the same desired outcomes could be achieved by focusing on redevelopment of areas that already have structural protection. If not, then that consultant might organize a scenario planning session, engaging experts who could speak to the probabilities of storms of a particular size and strength, and how structures and infrastructure would perform under those conditions, and whether steps are available to bring levels of damage to within an acceptable range. This would mean that the politicians who ultimately decide whether such districts are created would be presented with (or not allowed to avoid) critical information concerning risk.

But let’s be frank. When you’re a junior-level person in a typical consulting firm asking hard questions that a client might not want to hear, you risk your job, not to mention your firm’s ability to get future work from that client. It’s never easy speaking truth to power, and that needs to change. At least universities (the sector where I now work) don’t typically punish those (as harshly) who are willing to speak honestly about challenging subjects. No wonder I left consulting!


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