Following Texas politics via social media can be dangerous to your mental health. Instead of doing their jobs, our elected officials seem to spend their days engaged in online mortal combat. Ted Cruz challenges Hellboy actor Ron Perlman to fight an Ohio congressman, and John Cornyn responds to negotiations over a COVID-19 relief bill with “blah blah blah.” The Republican Party of Texas, comfortable in its near-total control of the state for a quarter century, can’t run a Zoom meeting. It’s enough to drive you mad.
Whenever I feel the brain worms coming on, however, I just close my eyes and let loose with my new mantra: build the Ike Dike. Nabokov himself might have engineered such a phrase. The quadrisyllabic sentence shifts from soft consonants to aggressive k’s like raindrops from an intensifying storm falling onto a leaky roof. Build. The. Ike. Dike.
My mantra calms me, but it’s also an attempt to turn attention from distracting culture-wars nonsense to more important matters. Every corner of the state has its needs, but in my neck of the woods we face a Houston-size problem: the city is uniquely vulnerable to what could be one of the greatest environmental disasters in American history, and few Texas politicians are doing a damned thing about it.
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The Greater Houston region is home to more than seven million people. It also hosts the largest concentration of petrochemical complexes in the U.S. Gasoline, jet fuel, plastics, fertilizers, and all manner of chemicals are refined and stored at these facilities. Many of them emit toxic pollutants, including carcinogens. Yet their products are critical to the Texas economy. And the whole thing is clustered around the Port of Houston—one of the busiest ports in the U.S. in terms of foreign trade, and an inland hub for around two hundred public and private terminals serviced by the 52-mile Houston Ship Channel.
That “inland” part is important. In 1900, the region’s most critical port, Galveston, was destroyed by a massive hurricane that to this day remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. As many as 12,000 died, and no building on the island was left unscathed. Ten years later, Houstonians approved local funding (matched by federal dollars) to build a channel and a port that would fill the economic gap and be better protected from nature’s fury.
That protection would be tested by several significant hurricanes over the next century, but none of the storms was as alarming as 2008’s Hurricane Ike, which struck southeast Texas, killing at least 74 Texans and inflicting roughly $30 billion in damage across three states. Despite that fallout, Houston was lucky that the storm veered east at the last minute. If Ike had struck a couple dozen miles farther west, the counterclockwise spin of the storm would have driven a mass of seawater directly into Galveston Bay and up the Ship Channel. And if that storm had been just a little bit stronger?
Here’s how the Houston Chronicle editorial board, of which I was a member at the time, described such a scenario in 2016: “A 20-foot wall of water smashing into tanks filled with oil and chemicals, transforming a bay teeming with life into a pit of poison.” Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education, & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center has estimated that a storm surge of that size would result in a spill of more than 37 million gallons of crude oil and/or other hazardous substances in the nation’s third-largest county. For context, the Exxon Valdez disaster involved 11 million gallons leaking in a remote part of Alaska.
Such a disaster would disrupt global supply chains, cut off the military from much of its jet fuel, contaminate ecosystems in Galveston Bay, and destroy one of the state’s core economic engines—not to mention kill a bunch of Texans. The risk is only increasing as climate change leads to more severe and frequent storms. Arguing that Texas couldn’t count on the federal government, then governor Rick Perry established a commission in November 2008 to help with Hurricane Ike recovery and to study long-range planning around hurricanes. By 2009 the committee had come out in support of a plan by Bill Merrell, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University Galveston, to build an extensive seawall: a coastal spine he dubbed the Ike Dike. The basic idea wasn’t new. Galveston built a ten-mile seawall across the eastern third of the island after the 1900 storm. This one, however, would be seventy miles long and seventeen feet high, stretching west from Bolivar Peninsula along the entirety of Galveston Island, including a movable sea gate at the entrance to Galveston Bay. Ever since, Merrell and his allies have been trying to convince politicians to build the Ike Dike, which is estimated to cost $10 billion to $20 billion.
This coastal spine is designed to block surging waters during a superstorm event. The seawall would prevent Galveston and Bolivar from being overrun by the Gulf, and the gate would be moved to stop seawater from even entering the bay. Homes, businesses, and refineries would remain on terra firma. According to one study, the Ike Dike would prevent between 70 percent and 97 percent of the damage from a five-hundred-year storm.
But not everyone has fully embraced Merrell’s vision. Jim Blackburn, the codirector of the SSPEED Center at Rice University, agrees that southeast Texas needs a storm surge protection system, but he questions whether a seventy-mile reinforced spine has what it takes to blunt the effects of a hypothetical Category 5 hurricane. Over the years, Blackburn has been involved in a series of proposals that aimed to protect the most vulnerable areas within the bay rather than hold the line at the coast. Now he has settled on the Galveston Bay Park Plan, a series of ecologically friendly, man-made islands within the bay that would double as storm surge prevention and recreational green space. The park plan has found a prominent champion in Terence O’Rourke, an environmental attorney with the Harris County Attorney’s Office, which announced in August that it had found legal authority to design, build, and operate the project.
Meanwhile, homeowners on Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island have bristled at the notion of putting a massive barrier next to their homes. One recent version of the Ike Dike—laid out in a 2018 plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—involved raising Gulf-side roads to create a levee, stranding many homes between the water and the wall. Now, the corps instead contemplates moving the barrier closer to the Gulf, but homeowners still fear it would tank property values. Environmental studies have also raised serious concerns about whether the Ike Dike would degrade marine habitats; some of the concerns are legitimate (changes to salinity levels might hurt marine life) and others less so (the gates might somehow crush the rare manatee that enters the bay).
Of all these different visions, the Ike Dike stands out as the biggest, boldest proposal to stop the inevitable storm surge from entering Galveston Bay in the first place. Despite its scale, the idea is also a fundamentally conservative approach—similar projects have been successful around the world, notably in the Netherlands. However, this hasn’t stopped critics from comparing it to an ocean-side Maginot Line. In the event of a Category 4 or 5 storm, they argue, not even the Ike Dike will be able to hold back the Gulf.
At this point the debate feels academic. Here we are, twelve years after Ike, and there’s still little to show for all the different proposals. The only thing in motion at the moment is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study of a $31 billion plan for the entire Texas coast, which includes a mix of Ike Dike–style barriers and gates, protective dunes, and ecosystem restoration. The agency won’t deliver recommendations to the clowns in Congress until May 2021.
In contrast, it took only six years after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 for New Orleans to have its own significant barrier and water pump system up and running to protect the region from storm surges. This system was put to the test during Hurricane Isaac in 2012, when the new floodgate and surge barrier blunted a potential sequel to Katrina. Our Louisiana neighbors benefited from having consensus plans on the shelf, bipartisan advocacy by senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, and a sympathetic Congress ready to directly fund the whole thing.
So where is Texas’s leadership on the Ike Dike?
Local advocates with the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, a nonprofit that promotes economic development, are pitching the idea of resilience bonds to scrounge up some funding—a proposal that envisions the combination of local and federal dollars that first built the Ship Channel. But the big players in the region haven’t been much help.
Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm that came perilously close to Houston, may have shocked them out of complacency, with Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo now expressing support for a storm surge barrier, but we’ll see how long it lasts. Houston and Harris County governments have all too often treated this as a problem for the coast, presuming that seaside communities will bear the brunt of any disaster. That attitude is summed up by a line from former Houston mayor Annise Parker: “Galveston is our Ike Dike.” And the oil and gas industry, which would see its multibillion-dollar investments protected by an Ike Dike, has remained largely silent.
To his credit, land commissioner George P. Bush has been talking about storm surge protection since his first campaign for statewide office. In 2017 he wrote a public letter to President Donald Trump, signed by six county judges, 21 mayors, and more than two dozen business leaders and educators, asking for $15 billion in federal funds to build a coastal barrier. And Governor Greg Abbott has been working behind the scenes to push for federal support for the Ike Dike. We know that because Trump publicly ridiculed him for it. “I don’t know that we’re going to do the one that the governor asked for,” Trump told the audience at a 2018 campaign stop in Houston, talking about the governor’s request for Ike Dike funding after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas. “I said, ‘Would you name it the Trump Dam, please? Name it the Trump Dam.’ ”
Cornyn has tried to accelerate the Ike Dike approval process—a notable improvement on his part since the 2014 election, when he was asked about the project and said, “I don’t even know what that is.” And Ted Cruz, I hear, is also a senator from Texas.
But no statewide or federal leader is putting their full weight behind the project. It isn’t in their talking points, social media posts, or public arguments about what should be important to Texas. Perhaps what’s most frustrating about this failure of leadership is that shepherding projects such as the Ike Dike used to be a core job for our politicians—and they were mightily rewarded for their successes.
There was a time when federal funding for the right project could land an elected official in the pantheon of great Texans. Take, for example, Tom Ball, the congressman who first secured funding for the Ship Channel in 1899. Just like Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, he has a Texas city named in his honor. (Tomball, if you couldn’t guess.) Lyndon B. Johnson has his name on the Johnson Space Center, a facility built in Houston for no reason other than successful politicking. Heck, former senator Kay Bailey Hutchison even has a desalination plant named after her in El Paso.
In 2012, before she stepped down from office, Hutchison met with the Chronicle editorial board and offered some advice for the senators who would follow her. She said that representing Texas was like being the parent of a teenager: there’s always something you have to deal with. Senators from less populous states could expedite a federal office building here, a railroad museum there, and spend the bulk of their time on partisan crusades. The work of a Texas senator, however, was never done. Now it feels like teenagers are in charge.
The problem, though, isn’t maturity. It’s incentives. Over the last quarter century, Texas politicians have increasingly abandoned the tradition of winning votes by securing federal dollars for their constituents. For Houston, the turning point came in 1994, when 21-term Democratic congressman Jack Brooks lost his reelection to Steve Stockman, an almost comically corrupt grifter. The legendary Brooks spent 42 years bringing projects to his southeast Texas district. He’s the reason there’s a Strategic Petroleum Reserve in Winnie, east of Houston. Brooks directed so much federal funding to Lamar University in Beaumont that the campus higher-ups erected a statue of him. But in 1994, the only thing that mattered to voters was his “yes” vote on an assault weapons ban. (Stockman is currently in federal prison on 23 felony counts related to money laundering, mail and wire fraud, and campaign finance violations.)
The takeaway: Why should elected officials care about delivering for their districts if their own voters don’t seem to care? National trends and partisan wedge issues now matter more to electoral success than using federal resources to boost employment, protect homes, and make Texas a nicer place to live. Ted Cruz doesn’t have any good reason to fight for a storm surge barrier in the Senate if his voters would rather see him get in Twitter fights with Luke Skywalker, a thing that actually happened. But this is only a reasonable excuse for their actions if you really do think that our politicians are teenagers—still-developing youths who can’t be expected to control their impulsive behavior. Good politicians don’t follow the popular path like high schoolers under the influence of peer pressure. They make the path by leading on the critical issues that ensure the state’s well-being, whether or not it gets them reelected. They show Texans that, despite what Ronald Reagan once said, they’re from the government and they’re here to help.
Our state tends to embrace the myth that its success has been built entirely by rugged, self-made men breaking free of the taxes and regulations with which government tried to shackle them. But the blunt truth is that Texas has long taken more from the federal government than it paid in. And those federal resources helped build the infrastructure that allows the state to thrive. Even the budding oil industry relied on the government’s pipelines to move Texas crude to New Jersey during World War II.
I’d like to think that if Brooks and Hutchison were still in office, the Ike Dike would’ve been built years ago. Hurricane Laura, which came close to devastating southeast Texas in August, may have reminded today’s statewide leaders that we’re still deeply vulnerable to storm surges, but they should have been sounding the alarm after Hurricane Hanna, which struck South Texas in July and was almost immediately forgotten outside the region. So how did Texas leaders respond to Hanna? Greg Abbott retweeted a funny video about a guy stuck in his car during the storm eating Whataburger. “This is how Texans respond to hurricanes,” he wrote.
All together now: build the Ike Dike. There now, don’t you feel better?
Evan Mintz lives in Houston and was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist for editorial writing.
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.