This story was co-published with the Texas Tribune.
See the interactive version.
It is not if, but when Houston’s perfect storm will hit.
They called Ike “the monster hurricane.”
Hundreds of miles wide. Winds at more than 100 mph. And — deadliest of all — the power to push a massive wall of water into the upper Texas coast, killing thousands and shutting down a major international port and industrial hub.
That was what scientists, public officials, economists and weather forecasters thought they were dealing with on Sept. 11, 2008, as Hurricane Ike barreled toward Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States and home to its largest refining and petrochemical complex. And so at 8:19 p.m., the National Weather Service issued an unusually dire warning.
“ALL NEIGHBORHOODS, AND POSSIBLY ENTIRE COASTAL COMMUNITIES, WILL BE INUNDATED,” the alert read. “PERSONS NOT HEEDING EVACUATION ORDERS IN SINGLE FAMILY ONE OR TWO STORY HOMES WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH.”
But in the wee hours of Sept. 13, just 50 miles offshore, Ike shifted course. The wall of water the storm was projected to push into the Houston area was far smaller than predicted — though still large enough to cause $30 billion in damage and kill at least 74 people in Texas. Ike remains the nation’s third-costliest hurricane after Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.
Still, scientists say, Houston’s perfect storm is coming — and it’s not a matter of if but when. The city has dodged it for decades, but the likelihood it will happen in any given year is nothing to scoff at; it’s much higher than your chance of dying in a car crash or in a firearm assault, and 2,400 times as high as your chance of being struck by lightning.
If a storm hits the region in the right spot, “it’s going to kill America’s economy,” said Pete Olson, a Republican congressman from Sugar Land, a Houston suburb.
Such a storm would devastate the Houston Ship Channel, shuttering one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Flanked by 10 major refineries — including the nation’s largest — and dozens of chemical manufacturing plants, the Ship Channel is a crucial transportation route for crude oil and other key products, such as plastics and pesticides. A shutdown could lead to a spike in gasoline prices and many consumer goods — everything from car tires to cell phone parts to prescription pills.
“It would affect supply chains across the U.S., it would probably affect factories and plants in every major metropolitan area in the U.S.,” said Patrick Jankowski, vice president for research at the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston’s chamber of commerce.
Houston’s perfect storm would virtually wipe out the Clear Lake area, home to some of the fastest-growing communities in the United States and to the Johnson Space Center, the headquarters for NASA’s human spaceflight operation. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses there would be severely flooded.
Many hoped Ike’s near miss would spur action to protect the region. Scientists created elaborate computer models depicting what Ike could have been, as well as the damage that could be wrought by a variety of other potent hurricanes, showing — down to the specific neighborhood and industrial plant — how bad things could get.
They wanted the public to become better educated about the enormous danger they were facing; a discussion could be had about smarter, more sustainable growth in a region with a skyrocketing population. After decades of inaction, they hoped that a plan to build a storm surge protection system could finally move forward.
Several proposals have been discussed. One, dubbed the “Ike Dike,” calls for massive floodgates at the entrance to Galveston Bay to block storm surge from entering the region. That has since evolved into a more expansive concept called the “coastal spine.” Another proposal, called the “mid-bay” gate, would place a floodgate closer to Houston’s industrial complex.
But none have gotten much past the talking stage.
Hopes for swift, decisive action have foundered as scientists, local officials and politicians have argued and pointed fingers at one another. Only in the past two years have studies launched to determine how best to proceed.
A devastating storm could hit the region long before any action is taken.
“That keeps me up at night,” said George P. Bush, the grandson and nephew of two U.S. presidents and Texas’ land commissioner. As head of an agency charged with protecting the state’s coast, he kickstarted one of the studies that will determine the risk the area faces and how to protect it.
But the process will take years. Bush said, “You and me may not even see the completion of this project in our lifetime.”
It’s already been eight years since Ike and Houston gets hit by a major storm every 15 years on average.
“We’re sitting ducks. We’ve done nothing.” said Phil Bedient, an engineering professor at Rice University and co-director of the Storm Surge Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center. “We’ve done nothing to shore up the coastline, to add resiliency … to do anything.”
To this day, some public officials seem content to play the odds and hope for the best.
Houston’s new mayor, former longtime state lawmaker Sylvester Turner, declined an interview request for this story. Turner’s office released a statement from Dennis Storemski, the city’s public safety and homeland security director.
“Only a small portion of the city of Houston is at risk for major storm surge,” it said.
In a second statement, Storemski placed the onus primarily on the federal government to safeguard the Houston region from a monster hurricane. He said the city “looks forward to working with the responsible federal agencies when a solution is identified and funded.”
“Until then, we continue to inform our residents of their risk and the steps they should take when a significant tropical cyclone causes storm surge in the [Ship] Channel, and evacuations become necessary,” the statement said.
The pressure to act has only grown since Ike, as the risks in and around Houston have increased.
The petrochemical complex has expanded by tens of billions of dollars. About a million more people have moved into the region, meaning there are more residents to protect and evacuate.
“People are rushing to the coast, and the seas are rising to meet them,” said Bill Merrell, a marine scientist at Texas A&M University at Galveston.
”We’re all at risk”
The Houston Ship Channel and the energy-related businesses that line it are widely described as irreplaceable. The 52-mile waterway connects Houston’s massive refining and petrochemical complex to the Gulf of Mexico.
For all its economic importance, though, the Ship Channel also is the perfect conduit to transport massive storm surge into an industrial area that also is densely populated.
“We’re all at risk, and we’re seriously at risk,” said Craig Beskid, executive director of the East Harris County Manufacturers Association, which represents ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and other major companies that operate 130 facilities in the area. “Not only are the people here in this region at risk, but significant statewide economic assets and national assets are also at risk.”
Half of the Ship Channel, which is 45 feet at its deepest, cuts through Galveston Bay, while the other half is landlocked, snaking inland at about 400 feet wide. Its slim and shallow nature would intensify the height and impact of potential storm surge.
The effect would be similar with Clear Lake, another narrow channel jutting off the bay that is surrounded by affluent suburban communities.
The storm models that scientists have created show that Houston’s perfect storm would push water up the Ship Channel, topping out at a height of more than 30 feet above sea level. The surge would be only slightly lower in Clear Lake.
That’s higher than the highest storm surge ever recorded on the U.S. coast — 27.8 feet during Hurricane Katrina. And it would be almost entirely unabated. Unlike New Orleans, whose levee system failed during that 2005 storm and was rebuilt after, Houston has no major levee system to begin with. (A 15-foot earthen levee and flood wall surrounds one low-lying town on the Ship Channel, but that would be inadequate to protect against a worst-case storm.)
“You’re talking about major, major damage,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat. “And it seems like every year they tell us that we’re overdue for one.”
Each monster hurricane model that scientists provided to The Texas Tribune and ProPublica is slightly different. One model, nicknamed “Mighty Ike” and developed by the SSPEED Center and the University of Texas at Austin, is based on Ike but increases its wind speeds to 125 mph. Researchers also refer to that as “p7+15.”
Another storm, modeled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is physically smaller but has much higher wind speeds — 145 mph. Still, neither the FEMA model nor Mighty Ike is classified as a Category 5 storm, which would have wind speeds of at least 157 mph.
Both would make landfall at a point near the western end of Galveston Island, where Ike was originally projected to come ashore.
For Houston, that’s the worst place a hurricane could hit, positioning the counterclockwise-spinning storm to fling the most water into the Ship Channel and Clear Lake.
The scenarios are rare, scientists say, but by no means impossible. Mighty Ike is considered a 350-year event, according to the SSPEED Center, and the FEMA model is what is referred to as a 500-year storm.
Such events have a small, but measurable, chance of occurring in any given year. For example, there is a 1-in–500, or 0.2 percent, chance that a storm portrayed by the FEMA model will occur in the next hurricane season. Over the next 50 years, that translates to a likelihood of about 10 percent.
Scientists widely believe the method of calculating the probability of such storms may no longer be valid, in part because of climate change. “100-year” events might occur as often as every few years, while “500-year” events could every few decades, climate scientists say.
As scary as the models are, they are based on current sea levels. That means such storms will be even more damaging in the future as sea levels continue to rise in the wake of climate change.
Each model projects nothing short of catastrophe. Total damage could easily top $100 billion, scientists say. That is about how much damage Katrina inflicted on Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi a decade ago.
Galveston Island and low-lying communities in the Houston metro area would be completely underwater hours before the hurricane even hit.
Once the storm makes landfall, hurricane-force winds would meet rising waters to blow 25- to 35-foot storm surges up Clear Lake and the Houston Ship Channel.
The rushing water would be strong enough to knock homes and even sturdier commercial buildings off their foundations.
The models incorporate base land elevation and even some small levees or barrier systems, though not whether structures are elevated on slabs or stilts.
They show that many industrial areas along the Ship Channel would be inundated with enough water to cover a two- or even three-story building.
The communities and industrial plants around the Ship Channel and Clear Lake are typically elevated to only 10 to 20 feet above sea level, said Bedient of Rice University.
That means for many who haven’t evacuated, “you’re seeing people scrambling for their lives off of that first floor into the second floor,” Bedient said. “And then when it’s 20 feet high, you’re going to see water in the second floor as well.”
Sam Brody, a marine scientist at Texas A&M at Galveston who has studied the vulnerability of Clear Lake, says many people living there have no idea of the risk.
“It’s a great place to be,” he said of the region. “The last thing you think about is 20 feet of water coming up here.”
An economic and national security issue
Beyond the pain a scenario like Mighty Ike would inflict locally, a storm that cripples the region could also deeply damage the U.S. economy and even national security.
The 10 refineries that line the Ship Channel produce about 27 percent of the nation’s gasoline and about 60 percent of its aviation fuel, according to local elected and economic development officials. The production percentage is by most accounts even higher for U.S. Department of Defense jet fuel. (Official production figures are proprietary.)
In 2008, Ike caused widespread power outages that shuttered refineries for several weeks and forced operators to close a vast network of pipelines that delivers gasoline made in Houston to almost every major market east of the Rocky Mountains. Days after the storm hit, Houston Congressman Gene Green said concern over jet fuel was significant enough that a Continental Airlines executive and an Air Force general showed up to a local emergency response meeting to assess the situation.
“We can’t stand it when they shut down,” Green, a Democrat, recalls the general telling him. “We need to see what we can do to help.”
The airline executive, meanwhile, told him that commercial planes that usually gassed up in Houston were flying out with partially empty tanks.
If Houston’s refineries closed, some experts envision something like $7 per gallon gasoline across the country for an indefinite period of time — particularly in the southeast, which is “highly dependent” on two pipelines fed by Gulf refineries, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
“We would definitely see the price of gasoline, aviation and diesel fuel skyrocket,” not only domestically but probably globally, said Jankowski, of the Greater Houston Partnership.
Other analysts are less concerned, saying that refineries elsewhere would meet demand.
“Price spikes influenced by major storms/hurricanes tend to be shorter lived than most think,” said Denton Cinquegrana, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service, in an email.
Still, the Houston region’s 150 or so chemical plants are even more central to U.S. and global manufacturing than its refineries are to fuel production. They make up about 40 percent of the nation’s capacity to produce basic chemicals and are major makers of plastics, specialty chemicals and agrochemicals, including fertilizers and pesticides.
They export tens of billions of dollars’ worth of materials every year to countries such as China, which turn them into consumer goods — toys, tires, Tupperware, pharmaceuticals, iPhone parts, carpet, plumbing pipe, polyester fabric and all manners of car parts.
A lot of those products are shipped back to U.S. ports, including the Port of Houston, the busiest container port on the Gulf and the sixth-busiest in the United States.
“The phone I’m holding in my hand is made of plastic, which probably came out of one of the plants on the Ship Channel, and it was shipped to someplace overseas and then came back in the form of a molded phone and was installed in my office,” Jankowski said.
In 2014, during a climate change workshop held in Houston, staff from the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency outlined the potential implications of a monster hurricane shuttering Houston’s refining and petrochemical complex.
“Any disruption lasting longer than several days will negatively affect U.S. energy supplies. Any disruption lasting longer than several weeks will negatively affect the food security of the United States and our trading partners,” according to a workshop handbook, which envisioned a massive hurricane producing a 34-foot storm surge in the Ship Channel in 2044, when sea levels will be higher.
FEMA declined to make someone available to further discuss the risks.
An analysis of the FEMA 500-year storm model by the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston shows that 52 facilities on the Houston Ship Channel, including two refineries, would flood by as much as 16 feet of water.
Flooding is the most disruptive type of damage an industrial plant can experience from a hurricane. Salty ocean water swiftly corrodes critical metal and electrical components and contaminates nearby freshwater sources used for operations. Even plants that aren’t flooded would likely have to shut down because they depend on storm-vulnerable infrastructure — electric grids, pipelines, roads and rail lines.
After a storm like Mighty Ike, the Ship Channel itself — a crucial lifeline for crude imports and chemical exports — would probably be littered with debris and toxins, officials say. It would have to be cleaned up before ships and tankers could move safely again.
The U.S. Coast Guard briefly shutters all or parts of the Ship Channel dozens of times a year, often because of fog, but the costs of doing so are enormous: More than $300 million per day, as of 2014. (Experts say that number likely has fallen somewhat, along with the price of oil.)
Most plants keep about a month’s worth of inventory on hand, said Douglas Hales, a professor of operations and supply chain management at the University of Rhode Island. “As goods and supplies run out after about 30 days, you’re going to start feeling it.”
Ascend Performance Materials would burn through its inventory in two weeks, said Carole Wendt, its chief procurement officer. It is one of only two companies in the world capable of fully producing Nylon 66, a strong, heat-resistant plastic that goes into products such as tennis balls, airbags and cable ties.
That’s even after the company pads its inventory, which it does every hurricane season.
A worst-case scenario storm is “a really hard thing to plan for,” Wendt said. “It’s in our minds, it’s important, but there’s really there’s no way to plan for it.”
Houston’s refineries and chemical plants have taken measures to protect themselves from hurricanes since Ike and Katrina, constructing floodwalls and relocating and elevating certain buildings and sensitive infrastructure.
These steps will likely protect them from a weaker hurricane, but not the worst-case storms depicted in the SSPEED Center or FEMA models.
Protecting against anything beyond a 100-year storm is uncommon in the United States but not in other parts of the world. Systems in the Netherlands that inspired the “Ike Dike” concept are built to protect against a 10,000-year storm.
Industry officials say building a system to guard against these types of events would be cost prohibitive, especially given their comparatively low likelihood. They say it’s up to government to fund and execute such plans.
“That’s really a political question and a question for the federal government and the state government to decide upon,” said Beskid of the East Harris County Manufacturers Association.
Last year, his group endorsed the “coastal spine” concept. The Texas Chemical Council, which represents most of the chemical manufacturing plants in the Houston area, has not endorsed a particular project but says it supports studying the issue.
With so much at stake, many public officials readily agree not nearly enough has been done to protect the Houston region from hurricane damage.
And if anything is ever approved for construction, it’s at least a decade away from breaking ground.
“Here we are — what is this, eight years after Ike? — and nothing’s changed,” said Annise Parker, who stepped down as Houston’s mayor in January. “I don’t think we’ve done enough, and I don’t think we made enough progress.”
For years, scientists bickered over the cost and feasibility of the “Ike Dike,” a Dutch-inspired concept Merrell proposed in the months after Ike that has evolved into the “coastal spine.”
With a pricetag of at least $8 billion, the coastal spine would extend Galveston’s century-old, 17-foot seawall down the entire length of the island and along the peninsula to its north, Bolivar. It also would install floodgates at the entrance to Galveston Bay to block storm surge from entering.
The SSPEED Center has warmed to the coastal spine concept, but it’s also proposed a few alternatives, most recently, a $2.8 billion barrier dubbed the “mid-bay” gate that would stretch across Galveston Bay. As tall as 25 feet, the gate would be constructed closer to Houston than Merrell’s proposal. The proposal also includes another levee to protect Galveston.
Local officials have blamed scientists for not working together on a single plan. Congressional representatives for the area say they have been waiting on the state to give them a proposal to champion.
“These things come from our local government,” said Green, the Houston congressman who represents part of the Port of Houston. “I don’t have the capability to say, ‘This is what we need to do.’”
At a 2014 hearing in Galveston, members of the state’s Joint Interim Committee to Study a Coastal Barrier System blasted the SSPEED Center and Texas A&M for failing to agree on what to build.
“Hurricane Ike is now six years ago, and we’re still talking about trying to come up with consensus,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, a Republican who represents Galveston and suburban Houston, at the meeting. “We’ve spun our wheels since 2008, and it’s time to get moving.”
It was the only time the committee, created by the Texas Legislature in 2013, has ever convened, although Taylor said he thinks that meeting was key to getting Merrell and the SSPEED Center to work together.
Today, many coastal communities and industry groups have embraced the “coastal spine” concept.
Still, scientists and the business community fault state and federal elected officials for a lack of leadership in executing it or any other plan.
“I have begged some of our local officials to take this more seriously and take the lead,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, whose mission is to recruit businesses to the area and help them expand.
Six county executives formed a coalition in 2010 to study the issue, but for years it had no funding to do so.
Parker, the former Houston mayor, said the number of jurisdictions involved has complicated things but that “It’s absolutely going to take state leaders stepping up. No question in my mind.”
Taylor acknowledged that state lawmakers have dragged their feet on the issue, and said the congressional delegation isn’t at fault because “we’ve given them nothing to work with.” But he also said there have been legitimate organizational obstacles.
“Of course I’m frustrated it’s taken this long,” he said. “I think we all kind of picked it up a little late. It wasn’t like we had a plan sitting on the books when Hurricane Ike hit. It’s been a learning curve.”
State leaders had known the specifics of a worst-case hurricane years before Ike.
In the mid–2000s, then-Gov. Rick Perry’s office asked researchers at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Space Research to imagine monster storms pummeling the Texas Coast. They predicted that such a storm hitting the Houston area could cause $73 billion in damage and harm hundreds of industrial and commercial structures.
“Very likely, hundreds, perhaps even thousands would die,” the Houston Chronicle wrote in 2005, describing the scenario. The storm would also flood the homes of about 600,000 residents of Harris County, home to Houston, the newspaper said.
Around the same time, Harris County hired a local firm to do similar work and engineers there reached much the same conclusions, the article noted.
Officials presented the research all across the state’s coast in 2005. Soon after, hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast, prompting national discussions on storm preparedness and response. But all that work did not result in any concerted effort to build a storm surge barrier.
Inaction persisted even after Ike, some say.
“There was not a whole lot of support from the state as far as seeking — or even expressing the importance of seeking — funds” to study a solution, said Sharon Tirpak, project manager for the Army Corps’ Galveston District.
A Perry spokesman insisted the state made strides to prepare for hurricanes under his leadership.
“Over Governor Perry’s 14-year tenure, Texas enhanced and expanded its ability to respond to disasters across the state, with an emphasis on planning ahead and moving swiftly to save lives and protect as much property as possible,” said spokesman Stan Gerdes.
The office of Texas’ current governor, Greg Abbott, did not make him available for an interview.
The slow path forward
After years of delay, officials say they’re optimistic that a consensus plan to protect the region will emerge soon.
Since 2014, two studies have launched to determine how best to proceed, one led by the six-county coalition formed in 2010.
The local engineering firm the coalition hired with a $4 million state grant is examining the coastal spine, mid-bay gate and any other alternatives. The coalition is expected to make a final recommendation in June on how best to proceed.
It will then be up to someone else to do something with it.
“We were never chartered to build anything or to lobby for anything — only to study and to make recommendations,” said Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, the district’s chairman.
He said the final proposal likely will incorporate some aspects of the coastal spine.
But the multibillion-dollar idea will need approval from the Army Corps, which will borrow from the six-county district’s work for its own study.
For years, the Army Corps didn’t have the money to study protecting the Houston-Galveston region. But last year it finally found a willing state partner in the Texas General Land Office, which agreed to split the cost with the Army Corps for a $20 million study that will span the entire Texas coast.
“The Texas coast powers the nation,” Bush, the Texas land commissioner, said in a statement announcing the partnership. "Its vulnerability should be considered a national security issue.”
But the Army Corps has yet to secure its half of the funding for the study, which will take five and a half years. Every year, it will have to ask Congress for a portion of that $10 million, and if Congress says no, the study could take longer.
“It’s a lot of money. It’ll be competitive,” said Olson, the Houston-area congressman. “It starts with the Corps doing their job.”
The five-and-a-half year timeline is “disappointing,” members of Texas’ congressional delegation wrote in a November 2015 letter to the Army Corps and the White House.
“Progress on this study is long overdue,” they wrote. “This effort is important, not just to our state but to the entire nation.”
Even if the Army Corps study gets done, the agency will need a local partner to construct a project and pick up at least 35 percent of the tab under its normal rules.
Assuming everything goes perfectly, the Army Corps will identify a “tentatively selected plan” in the next two years. It then would embark on the arduous process of getting Congress to fund the plan. If that pans out, construction wouldn’t begin until about 2025. There’s a 1 in 50 chance that a 500-year storm will happen before then.
Those are a lot of ifs. Most projects carried out under the process that the Army Corps just started for Texas take years — even decades — to complete, if they get done at all, said Col. Leonard Waterworth, the former head of the Galveston District of the Army Corps.
“It’s a system that doesn’t work,” said Waterworth, who now is coordinating storm surge protection research at Texas A&M.
Bush, the land commissioner who kickstarted the Army Corps study, said he’s trying to “manage expectations,” noting that “we’ve got a long way to go.”
When a project is approved, Texas will need a political heavyweight to fight for billions of dollars from Congress to build it — probably a high-ranking federal lawmaker.
But no one seems willing to step up just yet.
Asked if he had anyone in mind, Bush responded, “Not at this time.”
Congressman Randy Weber, a Republican whose coastal district spans Galveston and some Houston suburbs near the coast, said he’s fully committed to securing funding for a project.
“I’ve been pushing as much as I can,” Weber said. “Obviously, if we could get one of the senators to step up and champion it, it would go a great way.” He specifically mentioned U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate.
Cornyn’s office declined to make him available for an interview. A staffer in the office of U.S. senator and presidential hopeful Ted Cruz said only that he supports the Army Corps’ study.
The Texas Tribune contacted every member of Texas’ 36-member U.S. House delegation. Only four made time for interviews: Two Republicans, Olson and Weber, and two Democrats, Green and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas.
Asked if she thinks a storm surge barrier will be built, Johnson replied, “That’s an interesting question, and much of it will depend on Mr. Weber’s party.”
Some local officials remain skeptical.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a former state lawmaker who was widely praised for his leadership during Ike, says he is not convinced that anything should be built at all and is waiting to hear what the six-county district recommends.
“What level of protection do we want? What level of risk is acceptable? That’s going to be part of the decision,” said Emmett, a Republican.
Most think the best hope of getting something done may be a devastating storm, bringing national attention to the issue and galvanizing politicians at every level of government.
“We will have a project six years after the next disaster,” Waterworth predicted.
That is how long it took to rebuild the levees near New Orleans after Katrina. The devastation prompted Congress to abandon the normal rules and fast-track the project, with the federal government picking up the entire $14 billion tab.
Merrell, too, predicted something will be built four years after the next hurricane.
“People who lose their relatives, [their] property, and they’re going to say, ‘why did that have to happen?’”
“Right Up There with the BP Oil Spill”
DEER PARK — Thousands of cylindrical storage tanks line the sides of the narrow Houston Ship Channel. Some are as small as residential propane tanks, others as big as the average 2-story house.
Hundreds of thousands of people live in industrial towns clustered around the Ship Channel, in the path of Houston’s perfect storm. And if flooding causes enough of what’s inside the storage containers to leak at even one industrial facility nearby, scientists say, the damage could be far-reaching.
A chemical release could fuel an explosion or fire, potentially imperiling industrial facilities and nearby homes and businesses. Nearly 300,000 people live in residential areas identified by one scientist as particularly at risk to a chemical or oil spill.
And if hazardous material spills into the Ship Channel and ends up in Galveston Bay, it could harm one of the region’s most productive estuaries and a national ecological treasure.
“It will be an environmental disaster right up there with the BP oil spill,” said Phil Bedient, who co-directs the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center at Rice University.
What companies keep in many of the storage facilities on the Ship Channel and what measures they take to protect them is difficult to pin down, both for national security reasons and to maintain trade secrets. That leaves scientists and advocates unsure of the true risk. But virtually all would agree the government standards and regulations in place would not protect against major oil and chemical spills if a monster storm were to hit.
Industry groups said they take hurricanes seriously and don’t deny they are at risk. They said that’s why the region needs a coastal barrier system.
“Hurricanes are devastating meteorological events, and when they hit … they will cause massive impact all over the Gulf Coast,” said Craig Beskid, executive director of the East Harris County Manufacturers Association, which represents ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and other major companies that operate 130 facilities in the area.
“Our facilities will be impacted. There will be severe impact to all of us because of that storm. We should be planning now to prevent those kinds of things,” Beskid said.
But no plans are in place to build a coastal barrier. And the risk is only increasing as companies have invested tens of billions of dollars in building new plants or expanding existing ones in the area, capitalizing on the cheap and plentiful natural gas that’s come with the shale boom.
James Stokes is the city manager for Deer Park, a town near the Houston Ship Channel where more than 30,000 people live. He said he thought most people in town understood the risk posed by the more than 1,500 storage tanks there.
“They see the tanks. They know that we’re in a petrochemical complex environment here,” Stokes said. “I think everyone’s aware that the tanks are there. That’s not a surprise.”
Jana Pellusch, a Deer Park resident who works at the Shell Oil Refinery, isn’t so sure. The tanks are so ubiquitous in Deer Park that they’ve become “part of the landscape,” she said. Most people hardly notice them.
“As a community, it would be good if we could come together and have a discussion about this,” she said.
With tanks, no guarantee
No single government agency keeps track of all the industrial storage tanks on the Houston Ship Channel, but tanks do show up on Google Earth as tiny dots. Scientists at the University of Houston examined aerial imagery and satellite data from 2008 to find more than 3,400 — a number that is likely higher today.
Usually made of steel plates welded together, the structures may not appear vulnerable to severe weather. But many elsewhere on the Gulf Coast have been damaged during hurricanes in the past decade, causing major spills.
High winds or rushing water can cause storage tanks to partially or completely collapse, rupture, or lift up off their foundations and float — turning into battering rams that can cause more damage.
“It’s not uncommon for tanks to fail like this in hurricanes,” said Jamie Padgett, a scientist at Rice University who has studied the hardiness of storage tanks on the Ship Channel. “It’s been sort of a repeated issue.”
One of the most famous examples of a tank damaged in a hurricane happened in 2005 at the Murphy Oil Refinery in Meraux, La., when Hurricane Katrina hit.
Floodwaters rushed into the refinery, overwhelming the earthen levees around a large oil tank and ripping it from its foundation. The tank, which was wider than a football field, floated to the west and ruptured, eventually pouring out more than 1 million gallons of oil.
That oil traveled a mile through receding floodwaters to the densely populated town of Chalmette, about 10 miles from New Orleans. It contaminated more than 1,700 homes that were already devastated by flooding. Murphy Oil reached a $330 million settlement with home and business owners, but many say the area will never be the same.
Experts say that Houston’s perfect storm could cause a much bigger disaster on the Ship Channel.
Using a version of “Mighty Ike,” the hurricane model developed at the SSPEED Center and the University of Texas at Austin, University of Houston researchers found that thousands of storage tanks along the Ship Channel could be impacted by storm surge. A few hundred may be especially in danger because they are so close to the water and are at a low elevation.
“It only takes one of those” to leak and create a major problem, turning the Houston Ship Channel into “a dead water body” and impacting wildlife in Galveston Bay, said Hanadi Rifai, a scientist at the University of Houston who has led the research.
The situation would be similar in a hurricane scenario developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Both the FEMA model and Mighty Ike imagine a hurricane with wind speeds of at least 125 mph (a Category 3 storm). Each scenario would cause a storm surge of more than 25 to 30 feet above sea level on the Ship Channel.
Such storms are rare, scientists say, but not impossible; there is a 9.5 percent to 13.3 percent chance that one of the two particular storms modeled will occur in the next 50 years.
The findings disturbed Pellusch, who has worked at Shell since 2004 maintaining the refinery’s instrumentation. It’s a job she loves.
“It makes me look at everything differently, having to do with the petrochemical industry in this area,” Pellusch said. “This is something people need to see.”
Experts want better protections
Murphy Oil’s tank wasn’t the only one to fail in 2005, and it didn’t even cause the largest spill; tanks damaged during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused more than 8 million gallons of oil to spill in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, according to government estimates.
Some tanks on the Houston Ship Channel were even damaged during Hurricane Ike in 2008, though the storm surge was far smaller than originally anticipated. About 15 feet of water covered the eastern part of >Magellan Terminals Holdings’ oil storage terminal in Galena Park, right on the Ship Channel, the company reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The storm surge and high winds caused damage to several tanks and a spill of nearly 1 million gallons of oil. Some was recovered, but about 300,000 gallons were released into the Ship Channel and “lost at sea,” Magellan reported. (The spill didn’t appear to impact any homes or businesses in Galena Park.)
Asked about its hurricane preparedness, Magellan spokesman Bruce Heine said that the company has a robust hurricane plan in place and follows all regulations. That also appears to have been true for Murphy Oil in Meraux (which has since been bought by Valero).
When companies store oil in hurricane-prone areas, they have to write spill prevention plans and follow certain regulations. But none of those regulations address protecting specifically against storm surge, which scientists say is one of the gravest threats. And no government standards exist in Texas for how to design the tanks to withstand storm surge from hurricanes.
The spill prevention rules simply ask companies to follow the standards developed by the American Petroleum Institute — standards that focus on withstanding high wind speeds, not surge, Padgett and other experts say.
The federal government requires oil tanks to have “secondary containment,” which usually means walls built around a tank. Those are usually not high enough to withstand surge in a storm like Mighty Ike, however. The 8-foot-high earthen walls around the Murphy Oil tank were easily overtopped during Katrina, according to the settlement agreement the company later reached with the community.
In general, the rules “more or less just leave it to the owner’s discretion as to how to consider any kind of surge or flood loads,” Padgett said. “It pushes all of the onus onto the owner.”
While Padgett and other experts think the design standards for industrial storage tanks should include better protection from storm surge, some don’t think it makes sense to require them to protect against every storm scenario.
“If you get a direct hit, there’s nothing you can do,” said Marshall Mott-Smith, who once ran Florida’s storage tank safety program and is now an industry consultant. “You wait till it’s all over, you go pick up the pieces, and you go pick up your tank … it would be cost-prohibitive to build tanks that withstand those forces.”
After the large tank spills during Katrina in 2005, a group of state and federal emergency officials looked for potential policy improvements. They released a fact sheet that advises companies to anchor tanks to the ground, replace oil or chemicals with water before a storm and keep tanks full enough so that they are too heavy to be moved by the force of rushing water. Those were just recommendations, however.
“You can only plan so large,” said Bryant Smalley, an emergency management official with the Environmental Protection Agency. “From an engineering standpoint, my question would be, what would it take to withstand a 25-foot storm surge down there?”
Smalley said the EPA could revisit one gap in the current rules on spill prevention: They apply to the storage of oil but not to other materials. The agency is now being sued over that and may reconsider, Smalley said.
Some storage tanks on the Ship Channel that carry toxic and potentially deadly chemicals are regulated under Texas’ air pollution programs, but no rules exist requiring them to protect against storm surge, experts say.
Some states require companies to add protections to oil and chemical tanks to guard against spills in natural disasters. In California, storage tanks must be anchored to the ground to prevent damage during earthquakes. But experts say Texas has no such laws for chemical storage tanks on the Ship Channel.
Communities in harm’s way, with little information
Based on Rifai’s analysis, residential areas on the Ship Channel at risk of damage from a chemical or oil spill include Deer Park, Galena Park, Pasadena, Baytown, and parts of southeast Houston — where nearly 300,000 people live.
The exact risks they face in a hurricane scenario are unclear, Rifai said, because it’s so hard to get specific information about what industrial facilities keep in their storage tanks and how well they’re protected. Residents may not understand the importance of evacuating or realize the added risk of living near refineries and chemical plants.
“My district is working-class, Latino, and [has] many people in poverty,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, who represents many of the industrial towns along the Ship Channel, including parts of Galena Park and Pasadena. “Even if we told them to move to safe harbor, they don’t have the car or the way to get there.”
Companies that store certain dangerous chemicals have to file “risk management plans” with the federal government that explain the most catastrophic accidents that could occur, but the plans do not require details about about vulnerability to flooding or high winds.
Facilities that store significant amounts of oil near waterways also have to file special documents with the EPA that demonstrate how they would respond to a spill and how they’re working to prevent one.
The Tribune and ProPublica requested those documents for more than 15 facilities on the Houston Ship Channel under the Freedom of Information Act. But as of publication time, the EPA had not fulfilled the request.
The EPA said that while those documents are generally public, some individual companies said their plans had information relevant to national security, prompting the delayed response.
The Texas Tribune and ProPublica also contacted nearly two dozen facilities that store large amounts of oil and chemicals on the Ship Channel which could be inundated by at least several feet of storm surge if a major hurricane directly hit the area. One company, Chevron, offered specifics, saying its 40- to 50-foot-tall storage tanks in Galena Park were surrounded by containment berms roughly 8 feet high.
Vopak’s bulk oil terminal in Deer Park has 243 storage tanks on the Ship Channel that can carry nearly 300 million gallons of oil, according to the company’s website. The worst-case-scenario models project that the area around terminal could be inundated by more than 12 feet of water.
Vopak’s spokeswoman Liesbeth Lans said the bulk liquid storage company has calculated the amount of liquid necessary to prevent the tanks from floating. She added that the company has plans to fill empty tanks with water in a storm event. She did not specify what level of storm surge Vopak is prepared for.
“A great amount of this information is commercially sensitive,” Lans wrote in an email. “As such, our preference is not to provide more specifics for the Vopak Terminal Deer Park.”
Several companies referred any questions about storm preparedness to the Texas Chemical Council, which represents most of the 150 chemical manufacturing plants in the Houston area.
“Chemical manufacturing plants along the Texas Gulf Coast are inherently designed and engineered to withstand hurricanes and other events, utilizing hardened equipment, as well as dikes and levees to provide added protection from storm water and containment in the event of a spill,” the council wrote in a statement.
Hector Rivero, the council’s president and CEO, argued that when it comes to the most serious risks posed by a hurricane, the focus should be on schools and neighborhoods. Industrial facilities have more means to protect themselves than most of the community, he said.
“Think about the thousands and thousands of cars that are now leaking gasoline and oil out because they’re underwater,” Rivero said.
For Pellusch, though, the unique risks to the petrochemical industry on the Houston Ship Channel should be better understood.
A common saying among workers is that the smell of petrochemicals and hydrocarbons that is ubiquitous along the Ship Channel is “the smell of money,” she said.
“You just brush it off like that,” she said. “I know people that work at these plants, and they make their living that way. So it’s something that we accept. It’s a big part of the economy.”
But, she added: “It comes with hazards.”
“We’ve Just Loaded Up the Gun”
NASSAU BAY — As Hurricane Ike barreled toward the Texas coast, John Nugent thought he could ride it out. Then a friend in emergency management told him, “you need to leave, because your life is going to be in jeopardy.”
Nugent lives just blocks from Clear Lake, a narrow body of water that feeds into Galveston Bay. And Ike was projected to cause a storm surge of 20 feet there, which would completely inundate Nugent’s home and his neighbors’ in the small city of Nassau Bay — as well as flood NASA’s Johnson Space Center nearby.
Nugent was lucky. Hurricane Ike turned at the last minute, and his home wasn’t flooded.
Not everyone was so fortunate. Ike still sent a 10 to 12 foot surge of water into Nassau Bay, flooding hundreds of homes and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. Many of the cities clustered around Clear Lake — some of the fastest-growing in the country — have not completely recovered.
Local officials say that when the next hurricane hits, the Clear Lake area will be prepared, citing stricter building codes and better education efforts put in place after Ike. But several experts have their doubts.
“We’ve learned a lot of lessons,” said Sam Brody, a marine scientist at Texas A&M University at Galveston who is an expert in flood preparedness. “But in terms of exposures, we’ve just loaded up the gun. We’ve filled the tinderbox for a much larger storm.”
Brody and other experts say the explosive economic and population growth that’s happened since Hurricane Ike has made the region far more vulnerable to storms — and the general public has little idea of the risk.
“Not only are we not moving forward,” Brody said, “but I think we’re moving backwards.”
Building more in harm’s way
Since Clear Lake-area cities rebuilt after Ike, tens of thousands of people have moved to the region, buoyed by the growing health care, technology, and oil and gas industries.
“It’s a great place to live, it’s a great place to raise your kids, the educational opportunities are there and the jobs are there,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, which recruits businesses to the area and helps existing ones expand.
Even Brody is glad he moved here after Hurricane Ike, at the request of Texas A&M.
But he also recognizes the irony of a flood risk expert moving to a flood-prone area. And for the past several years, he’s watched wetlands and prairie around Clear Lake get paved over for new developments — some paid for with Ike recovery dollars — resulting in less land to absorb floodwaters.
“Recovery is hurting us for the long term,” Brody said.
Jamie Galloway, Nassau Bay’s emergency management coordinator, said the region has worked hard to protect against flooding despite all the new development.
“Yeah, we’re more susceptible to potential flooding issues,” he said, but there are also more retention ponds in the area to hold in extra water. One for Nassau Bay was just recently dredged to increase its capacity, Galloway noted.
Some cities have also strengthened their building codes. In Nassau Bay, homes in the designated floodplain have to be raised 2 feet higher than the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance standards; in League City, they must be 18 inches higher.
But those standards are only for new or substantially renovated homes. Cities have gotten some money from FEMA to raise older homes, but only a few dozen homeowners in Nassau Bay and League City will benefit from those grants.
Officials in Nassau Bay and League City estimated that at least several hundred homes in each city were built before the current elevation standards were put in place. In the Clear Lake area as a whole, the number is at least in the thousands.
The new building codes should be even stronger, said Robert Eldridge, chairman of the local emergency planning committee that represents some Clear Lake-area cities, including Nassau Bay and Seabrook.
“My opinion is we build for now — we don’t build for the future,” he said. “Let’s plan for 50 years from now … it’s cheaper now to build it than it is to wait 20 years from now to redo this stuff.”
When Brody moved here after Hurricane Ike, he took flood risk seriously. He lives in a neighborhood that’s been raised several feet above the ground and is much farther inland than other Clear Lake-area cities.
But his research shows that many of his neighbors aren’t thinking about flood risk at all. In an academic survey of families in the Clear Lake area, Brody found that nearly half didn’t know they lived in the 100-year floodplain. “We surveyed people who are living next to a creek and they have no idea,” he said.
That was surprising to Nugent, who has worked as a real estate agent in the area since 1975. He pointed out that those who live in a 100-year floodplain should know it because federal law requires them to have flood insurance.
Even areas outside that floodplain in Clear Lake have consistently suffered major flood damage during storms. Homeowners living outside the 100-year floodplain have filed hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of insurance claims in the past 15 years, according to Brody’s research.
Anyone living outside the 100-year floodplain doesn’t typically need insurance, so they may not realize their house could flood, Brody said.
“Think about the people coming here,” he said. “They haven’t grown up with hurricanes. They’re coming from places where the idea of catastrophic surge and flooding is the farthest from their mind, and when they do make that real estate transaction, at a personal level, that risk is often buried into the paperwork.”
Nugent said he strongly urges everyone he sells a home to in Clear Lake to buy flood insurance, even if the law doesn’t require them to have it. He thinks many people take his advice.
Public officials throughout the region said they’ve gone to great lengths to educate people about the risk of flooding and hurricanes. They spoke of yearly community seminars, email alert systems, local media partnerships and newsletters.
“For new residents that are coming to Nassau Bay, we actually have on our website how we can prepare for an emergency,” said Jason Reynolds, the city manager there, adding that a newsletter including information on hurricanes goes out to the entire town.
Some efforts to educate people about storm surge have been met with resistance.
After Ike, the state and FEMA jointly spent $56,000 to build hundreds of “storm surge markers” — essentially, large poles that would show how high water could go in a strong hurricane — and install them in public places on the upper Texas coast.
But critics complained they were a scare tactic that was driving away businesses in a time of recession. “This program was discontinued due to lack of community interest,” said Texas’ Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger.
The next big one
Under a worst-case scenario model known as “Mighty Ike,” scientists predict portions of Clear Lake could rise by 25 feet or more above sea level. Another model projects surges that top 30 feet in some places.
Most communities around Clear Lake sit somewhere between sea level and about 20 feet above sea level, on average, so a 25–30 foot surge would be devastating.
The area surrounding Nassau Bay Town Square, a commercial center which opened up after Ike, would reach about 6 feet of water, according to the Mighty Ike storm simulation. The buildings there might remain standing, but they’d be catastrophically damaged. Any cars still in the parking lot would turn into battering rams in the rushing water, causing even more destruction.
A storm model from FEMA for what is considered to be a 500-year event also predicts the square would be under a few feet of water. Such a storm is rare, but by no means impossible; over the course of a 30-year mortgage, the chance it will occur is close to six percent.
Fred Griffin, the developer of Nassau Bay Town Square, said he was surprised to hear that figure, pointing out that the 31-acre parcel he bought in 2007 didn’t flood during Hurricane Ike.
Griffin said the buildings in the square follow all flood planning regulations. “Sure, there’s some risk, but [those moving to the area] don’t seem to worry about it,” he added.
Public officials in Clear Lake have taken a varied approach to addressing the risk of a storm like Mighty Ike. Ryan Edghill, emergency management coordinator for League City, said he’s worked on emergency drills for storm surges as high as 26 feet above sea level.
Nassau Bay’s city manager, Reynolds, was more skeptical of the scenario. “Is that like a doomsday calculation?” he asked.
Galloway, Nassau Bay’s emergency manager, said the region works hard to educate people about hurricane risk. But many probably aren’t aware of a Mighty Ike scenario “because we’ve had such an influx of population from folks from out of state,” he said.
If a storm like that hits, it’s not clear if everyone could evacuate soon enough. People could end up stranded on the road as the surge hits, and as the region’s population has grown since Ike, the growth in road capacity hasn’t caught up.
“There are a lot of these neighborhoods [in Clear Lake] where there’s one way in, one way out,” said Eldridge, of the local emergency planning committee. “And they don’t have a way to get out if a flood comes and then people are trapped.”
Waiting for disaster
The tendency of Clear Lake-area communities to flood, and the unique risk people there face of storm surge from nearby Galveston Bay, has been a topic of public interest and study for decades.
According to many local area mayors and economic development advocates, the best way to protect the region is to build something originally dubbed the “Ike Dike” and later the “coastal spine.”
That proposal involves building a floodgate between Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to stop storm surge from entering the bay.
But almost eight years after the concept was suggested, no finalized proposal for a coastal spine exists. The delays have frustrated Mitchell, of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.
“I’ll predict it right now: It will be built two years after the next hurricane hits,” Mitchell said.
Despite the lack of progress, Mitchell — whose own office is in Nassau Bay Town Square — doesn’t think it makes sense to stop or curb development in Clear Lake now. Such storms are too rare to justify slowing growth, he said.
Brody doesn’t want to slow growth either. But building codes could be more strict, elevation requirements could be higher and other flood defenses such as drainage systems could be strengthened, he said.
“We’re continuing to put more people in harm’s way,” Brody said. “And it makes sense, until some kind of disaster happens.”
Galveston: A Cautionary Tale
By most accounts, Houston exists as it does today because of a hurricane that hit nearby Galveston. And because of its location, Galveston will always bear the bigger brunt of a storm than its larger neighbor.
In the years leading up to 1900, Galveston was Texas’ powerhouse maritime metropolis. The 27-mile-long barrier island — situated between Houston and the Gulf of Mexico — boasted the state’s busiest seaport and had a population roughly equal to Houston’s at the time. With more millionaires per capita than any place in the United States, Galveston was alternately called the “Ellis Island of the West” and the “Wall Street of the South.”
Houston, whose shipping lane was a narrow, muddy bayou, struggled to compete with Galveston’s natural, deepwater and easy-to-access port.
But that September, a powerful hurricane engulfed the low-lying island, killing an estimated 6,000 people inside Galveston city limits and as many as 6,000 more outside it. The “Great Storm of 1900” still is the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history and prompted the rapid construction of a 17-foot seawall along part of the island — considered a modern feat of engineering at the time. (The initial 3.3-mile segment was completed less than four years after the storm hit.)
Using millions of pounds of landfill, crews also boosted the city’s elevation by more than a dozen feet in some places — the Gulf-facing side in particular. Those measures have helped Galveston better cope in subsequent storms, although the island remains enormously vulnerable. When a hurricane hits the region, Galveston is the first point of contact for the storm surge coming in from the Gulf. It also gets hit by that storm surge again, from the backside, when that wall of water recedes from the mainland.
In the years that followed the 1900 storm, Houston steadily stole Galveston’s greatness.
The power shift was set in motion in large part by the efforts of a retired Houston congressman, Tom Ball, who helped persuade his former colleagues to split the cost of dredging the city’s shallow shipping bayou to accommodate larger ships. The result was the Houston Ship Channel, a 52-mile maritime waterway that connects the Port of Houston to the Gulf. It was completed in 1914 during the iconic Texas oil boom.
The waterway sits behind Galveston, which offers some storm protection to ships, tankers, barges and the facilities they serve. Shipping experts describe the geography as a big advantage over other ports that sit directly on the coast.
With its own deepwater port, Houston quickly gobbled up Galveston’s shipping activity, and its population boomed. Today, the city has nearly 50 times more people than it did 100 years ago.
Meanwhile, Galveston’s population is scarcely larger than it was back then, with less than 50,000 full-time residents today.
In the century since the Great Storm, the island has been walloped by eight more hurricanes that have killed hundreds of people, forcing Galveston into an almost constant state of repairing and rebuilding. The last time was in 2008, when Hurricane Ike nearly destroyed the city all over again.
Outsiders — even insiders — often talk about it as a city that shouldn’t exist. Of the 10 barrier islands and peninsulas on the Texas coast, it is the only one with a sizable population of permanent residents.
More than 23 percent of Galveston’s residents live at or below the poverty line. That is notably higher than the state’s overall poverty rate of 17.6 percent, though not much worse than Houston’s (22.9 percent).
While Galveston has slipped from prominence, it has become the state’s go-to summer getaway spot, and tourism is key to its economy.
While Houston, which sits about 50 miles inland, will never be as physically vulnerable to hurricanes as Galveston, several scientists and public officials say Houston is more at risk because it has much more to lose.
In recent years, Houston has seen major growth in low-lying areas like Clear Lake. Those areas would be hit hard in a major storm, as would the city’s industrial complex.
As officials mull whether to build something like a super seawall or gate system to protect the Houston region from storm surge, many have pointed to Galveston’s demise as a reason to do so.
“We saw what happened to Galveston at the turn of the century,” said Janiece Longoria, the chairwoman of the Port of Houston Authority, on the fifth anniversary of Ike. “We can’t afford to gamble with the future in Houston.”