Galveston, Tex., is betting on the Ike Dike, a proposed 60-mile storm gate named after the raging hurricane that walloped the island and the rest of the Houston area four years ago, leaving more than 70 people dead and $30 billion in damage.
Norfolk is trying to strengthen its string bean of a storm-drainage system that can’t absorb mild flooding from high tides, much less deluges from hurricanes or nor’easters that dump rain for days.
And Maryland is looking for help from nature itself, buying up wetlands and marshes that officials hope will thrive in coming decades and provide buffers against surging storm water.
Sandy’s battering of the Northeast provided a preview of a terrifying future for many coastal areas — one potentially marred by increasingly frequent superstorms, with fierce winds and massive flooding. As a result, ideas to protect low-lying coastal cities — even those ideas once dismissed as too expensive or far-fetched — are getting a second look from officials and scientists worried that climate change will spawn a succession of ever-more-violent Sandys.
Some cities are looking into seeding oyster reefs and sea grass beds off Long Island and the Delmarva Peninsula’s Atlantic coast; these natural protections, scientists say, could help absorb the first wave of surging waters before the coastline is overwhelmed. Other areas are considering adding massive amounts of sand to their shorelines to soak up some of the surge before it reaches the next set of heavy blockers, sand dunes.
“In the aftermath of the storm, everybody wants to do what they wish they had done before the storm,” said Jim Titus, an expert on rising sea levels. “A lot of this stuff, they’re starting the process of figuring out.”
Along the coast, anxiety is growing even as cash-strapped local, state and federal governments struggle to come up with funding to study and develop storm-protection schemes. Complicating the efforts are continued partisan fights in Washington and in states over the cause and impact of climate change.
Caught in the middle are scientists who study the problem and say they haven’t gotten adequate support for their work. They worry it will take an even more destructive storm to end the political gridlock.
Hurricane Ike was a beast when it hit the Houston area in September 2008, ripping into Galveston and shutting down a petrochemical plant, causing fuel shortages. Four years later, William Merrill, the Texas A&M University professor who first envisioned the Ike Dike as a defense against storms, only recently got significant funding for his work. His proposal: Build a barrier in the Gulf of Mexico stretching the length of the island of Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula, with gates that swing open to allow boats into the bay and close to block storm surges of up to17 feet.
Galveston provided $250,000 for the project, Merrill said, allowing his research to continue and raising his hopes that he’ll eventually convince officials that the $6 billion structure is worth it.
“We’re slowly building the political will [to build it],” said Merrill, the George P. Mitchell chair for marine science at Texas A&M University at Galveston. “I just hope we don’t have to wait until thousands of people are killed.”
Other coastal areas have been stymied by partisan differences over the environment.
In North Carolina, the legislature voted this year to prohibit any regulations related to sea-level rise or global warming along the state’s coast before 2016. John Dorman, who as director of the Geospatial and Technology Management Office agency helps the state identify hazard risks, said the lack of political agreement has complicated his task: using a $5 million federal grant to study the impact of a rise in sea levels.
Dorman initially based his study on the assumption that sea levels could rise by nearly three feet by 2100, but scaled it back to 15.7 inches after objections from state and local residents who were concerned about the analysis’s economic impact. “What I need is someone to say, ‘John, this is what everyone agrees upon,’ ” he said.
Last year, Titus, the sea-level expert, wrote for the Environmental Protection Agency the first-ever plan that advises coastal areas to stop trying to hold back water. He said a rise in sea levels is unstoppable, and will be a fact of life in about 70 years.
He offered three suggestions for planners: retreat from the coasts, giving landowners money as an incentive to leave; continue building dikes that cost about $35 million per mile, according to one expert; or let landowners stay in projected flood areas as long as they want, but make clear that they will be on their own when the waters rise.