The Ike Dike: Where does Houston's coastal protection project stand?

The recent success of New Orleans' upgraded coastal protection system against Hurricane Ida has many Houstonians wondering where Houston stands in protecting its coast against a major hurricane.

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Ida marked the first major test of the $14 billion upgrades to the New Orleans levee system. The project had come about after the levee system failure that caused much of the damage to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The new levees in New Orleans held up, leaving many eager to see Houston make progress on proposed plans to fortify our own part of the Gulf Coast. 

MORE: Four years after Hurricane Harvey, Houston mayor says the city is less vulnerable

One of the most well-known proposals to protect the Galveston coast is the Ike Dike.

Dr. William Merrell, professor at Texas A&M Galveston and author of the Ike Dike proposal says it's based on a concept borrowed from the Dutch. The plan involves strengthening and shortening the coast to better protect against surges. This would involve everything from levees to a massive gate to protect our ship channel. 

"The beautiful thing about the Ike Dike is it protects everyone," Dr. Merrell said. "It protects the ship channel, it protects the communities in the upper bay, it keeps water from getting into Galveston Bay, it stops the surge at the coast; everybody ought to be interested."

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Additionally, he points out and says the gate system would ensure operations continue seamlessly. 

"Houston is the busiest export port in the United States," Dr. Merrell noted. "There are different types of gates; big ones for ships, small ones for environmental flow. The gates will always be open unless the hurricanes coming through, so it wouldn’t interfere with circulation or shipping." 

The Ike Dike proposal is named after Hurricane Ike, which brought death and destruction when it made landfall in Galveston in 2008. It flooded more than 100 thousand homes. It caused more than $30 million in damage. Hurricane Ike was a category two storm. Hurricane Ida was a category four, leaving Houstonians wondering how we'd fare against such a powerful hit. 

MORE: Has flood protection in Harris County improved since Hurricane Harvey?

Dr. Merrell says the success of the New Orleans levees proves protective measures work.

"[New Orleans] didn’t have any major over-reaches," Dr. Merrell said. "The levees were strong. There wasn’t any surge. There's still going to be flooding due to the rainfall, and poor drainage, but what it did show us is that levees work. That’s the bottom line." 

RESOURCES: Hurricane Ida's aftermath: How displaced evacuees from Louisiana can find help in Houston

Dr. Merrell estimates the Ike Dike would take roughly four years to construct but was proposed more than a decade ago. What's the hold-up? 

"Political will," sighs Dr. Merrell, "and it’s an awful lot of money. We wanted to be sure that we got it right."

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He believes we have, however, and that the immediate financial benefit to coastal residents should be among the key motivating factors. In fact, he points out similar savings were had by many in Louisiana after the New Orleans levee upgrades were completed.

"Should it be built and have 100-year protection, it would lower most insurance rates," Dr. Merrell claimed.

The Army Corps of Engineers is currently assessing the Ike Dike project.

"The corps has completed its feasibility study," says Dr. Merrell. "In September, if the Chief of Engineers sends a positive report to Congress—meaning it’s in the natural national interest to build it—we already have the mechanism set up by the Texas legislature and Governor to basically operate and maintain it. So, we’re ready to go. We just need money."

Want to dig into the details of the Ike Dike proposal? Click here to view in-depth information about the plan.