Technically, Hurricane Ike wasn’t a big storm—the 2008 tempest “only” had Category 2 force winds. And yet Ike did big storm damage. By the time it made landfall on Galveston Island, the storm stretched for 120 miles along the Texas coast. This sheer size gave it the force to push a 20-foot-high dome of Gulf of Mexico water across the Bolivar Peninsula, which lay on the northeast quadrant, or “dirty side,” of the eye, and up into Galveston Bay, and then into the city of Galveston from the harbor.

Houston proper suffered a relatively minor hit—the city mostly experienced downed power lines, uprooted trees, and flattened fences. Nevertheless, Ike caused $27 billion in damage, making it the fourth-most expensive hurricane in U.S. history. That damage was almost exclusively to buildings and infrastructure. The natural systems—wetlands, coastal prairie, Galveston Bay itself — recovered quickly. By the time the debris was cleared from the causeway to Galveston Island, the first tentative green sprouts of marsh grass were poking up along the edges of the bay.  

By 2008, Rice’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center had been up and running for a year, uncovering lessons learned from other recent hurricanes like Katrina and Rita. SSPEED brings together experts from Rice, the University of Houston, Texas A&M University, Texas A&M University at Galveston, the University of Texas at Austin and Louisiana State University, plus several architecture and engineering firms. Phil Bedient, Rice’s Herman Brown Professor of Engineering, serves as director, and Jim Blackburn, who is a professor in the practice of environmental law at Rice, is co-director. The center’s mission is to lead both research and education efforts that help Gulf Coast residents and businesses prepare for storms and mitigate the ways these disasters affect our lives.

“We’re kind of proud of the fact that these major universities are all working together in one direction on a very important project that impacts the entire Gulf Coast,” says Bedient. 

Among the strategies for protection against future hurricanes that SSPEED evaluated was what Blackburn called “nonstructural surge damage mitigation.” 

“[We started] looking at nature and learning from nature —and exercising some humility in that approach,” says Blackburn.

What they observed was that when left in their natural state, bays, estuaries, and wetlands (and prairies that surrounded them) recover surprisingly rapidly from hurricane-related floods. Within days of the salty inundation from Ike, for example, the wetlands of Chambers County were returning a long cascade of storm water to Galveston Bay. The marshes—so essential as nurseries for flounder, redfish, oysters and shrimp—had doubled as cleansing sponges. Blackburn and his colleagues at SSPEED recognized that these natural systems could be a lesson for how to design better human systems..

The problem was that much of the wetlands in Ike’s path had already had been lost to industrial and residential development. On Galveston Island, the Bolivar Peninsula, and Surfside Beach, many of the cattle pastures and modest “bait camps” of a generation earlier had been replaced by subdivisions of mammoth vacation homes on man-made canals. On the mainland, petrochemical plants dotted the shores of Galveston Bay from Freeport and Texas City to within a few miles of downtown Houston. With a population of more than 6 million in the Greater Houston Metropolitan Area, demand for recreational amenities an hour from home was bound to grow, and developers were bound to respond to that demand.

If the remaining wetlands along the upper Texas coast were to be preserved as a protective barrier, a countervailing economic force would have to come into play. As Blackburn pragmatically put it, SSPEED needed to “design a nonstructural solution and figure out an economic system that can survive inundation.”

In other words, their idea was to start with the desired result, and work backward. It was an unconventional approach.

For advice, Bedient called on environmental consultant Lynn Scarlett, deputy secretary of the  U.S. Department of the Interior under President George W. Bush. The area in question spread 130 miles along the upper Texas coast, almost from the Louisiana border in the northeast to Matagorda Island in the southwest, and inland to Winnie, Alvin, and Bay City, for a total of 1 million acres, more than a third of which is wetlands. The land contained hundreds of property owners, from government entities like the Department of the Interior with its national wildlife refuges and Texas Parks and Wildlife with its state parks, to conservation associations like Ducks Unlimited and the Houston Audubon Society, to multinational petrochemical corporations, to individual farmers and ranchers.

Given the present political environment in Texas of limited government, the formation of a national seashore, similar to Padre Island’s, would never fly. Even in a different era, assembling the parcel would have been impossibly unwieldy; and with the National Park Service’s $2.9 billion budget virtually flat since 2008, the money simply wouldn’t be there.

Former Interior deputy secretary Scarlett suggested an alternative structure—something called a “national recreation area.” Over the past three decades, the concept had proven viable in 18 areas, from the Boston Harbor Islands to the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles. The National Park Service would serve as an organizing entity to package and “brand” the recreation area as a tourist destination, but the land itself would remain in private, state or local government hands. No additional regulations would be imposed. Federal expenditures would be kept to a minimum. Most appealing to Texans in particular, participation would be entirely voluntary. The proposed area of land would be called the Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area (LSCNRA).

“This is a solution that has been tailored to address Texas concerns about interference with property rights and federal intervention in local matters,” Blackburn said.

LSCNRA already has some prominent backers. Leading the effort are former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the honorary chairman of the project’s steering committee. John Nau III is the actual chairman. Nau and his wife Bobbie own Silver Eagle Distributors, the second-largest beer distributorship in the country. Nau has a deep interest in both historical and environmental preservation. Galveston attorney, Moody Gardens board member, and former legislator Doug McLeod agreed to help assemble a coalition of partners representing various nonprofit organizations, philanthropic foundations, private landowners and local, state and national government entities.

This coalition is responsible for articulating the specifics of the vision, including hammering out the draft of the enabling legislation the group hopes to present to Congress in fall 2013, with the hope of getting it passed in time for the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service.

A joint National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and SSPEED study of the economic potential of the project determined that within its first five years, the LSCNRA would add 5,260 jobs in the four-county region and infuse $192 million per year into the local economy. The area is already an international destination for birders, offering a wealth of colorful migratory and resident species, and it is regionally popular for bay and offshore fishing. Other low-impact diversions, such as kayaking, are underdeveloped.

“This project is very grass-roots driven,” said Victoria Herrin, campaign director for the Texas Gulf Coast in the National Parks Conservation Association, which is working with John Nau to take the legislation forward. “Rather than being handed down from Washington, the LSCNRA is being handed up from the grassroots.”

Karla Klay, founder and executive director of Artist Boat, a Galveston nonprofit that encourages both adults and schoolchildren to explore the bay and bayous by kayak, explained that as a member of the partners coalition she could accomplish much more to conserve the wetlands and promote nature tourism than she could on her own. A graduate of the yearlong Leadership Institute for Nonprofit Executives in Rice’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, she said, “I love community-based initiatives. I enjoy connecting things and concepts and places and organizations. You can leverage resources and get more done.”

The LSCNRA would work like this: Through its website and publications, the NPS would present the area as nationally significant in terms of its lush scenery, diverse environment rich in flora and fauna, recreational opportunities, and historically significant structures, including Galveston’s wealth of Victorian architecture and Fort Travis, part of the battery of late 19th-century coastal defenses. The NPS also would bring their vast knowledge and expertise to the region, as well as staff for the LSCNRA.

Responding to the elevated public interest, state agencies, NGOs, and private landowners would recognize the opportunity to prosper by making the wetlands more accessible — adding launch ramps for kayaks, augmenting a dock with a casual restaurant, and organizing guide services. For example, a rancher who now rented a cabin on his duck hunting lease would be able to make additional money by making it available to birders the rest of the year. Leaving his land in its natural state, or restoring it, would become profitable enough to compete with developing it.

Compared to people who travel for other reasons, nature and cultural tourists tend to spend more money per day and tend to be more considerate of their surroundings. The LSCNRA would give landowners an economic stake in protecting the wetlands of the upper Texas coast, and those wetlands, in turn, would protect the towns, cities and industries from future storm surges. This could only happen through a coordinated effort.

“Nature can’t take care of itself anymore,” said Klay. “Oceans can’t take care of themselves. People have to step in.”

Rice’s Maurice W. Ewing Professor of Oceanography John Anderson would agree. In his book, “The Formation and Future of the Upper Texas Coast” (Texas A&M University Press, 2007), Anderson notes that Galveston Island is experiencing a rate of sea level rise not only unprecedented, but four to six times the average for the past 4,000 years. “There are large areas of the island that are within a meter of sea level, like wetlands, that are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise,” he warned. “We are currently seeing radical change. It is not a prediction. It’s an ongoing process.”

The next step for the project will be to introduce federal legislation to create the LSCNRA. To date, many private, local and state and federal government interests have signed on as potential partners.

“The basic idea,” Blackburn said at a conference earlier this year, “is to develop a recreation and natural resource-oriented economy that can survive inundation. It is ‘economy’ as a flood mitigation alternative. In other words, the coast would not suffer economic harm from flooding if flooding were designed into, and compatible with, the structure of the economy.”

For those along the Texas coast, this takes storm preparation to a significant new level.