Galveston Capital Tourism and Marketing Texas Edit Title

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Can we enjoy and protect Galveston Bay?

Before his untimely death in 2015, architect and University of Houston professor Thomas Colbert dreamed of creating a storm surge protection system for Houston and Galveston that would serve as an icon for the region.

He was interested in the intersection of "green and gray space," says Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer, planner and professor at Rice University. Colbert wanted to create an architectural statement worthy of an area that is vital not only to the nation, but the world. Home to the Houston Ship Channel, petrochemical complexes, beach and recreation areas, a thriving fishing industry, world-class birding and a rich ecosystem, Galveston Bay is an estuary that is important for tourism, community and industry alike.

To demonstrate how a protection system that incorporates a monumental architectural statement could focus this vast area, Colbert created a rendering that places the Statue of Liberty within the Gulf Coast landscape — an image loaded with meaning — as if to say, "Here is a place of importance and a place for all."

"Usually, the cost of doing nothing is missing out on some future benefit," Blackburn says. "In this case, the cost of doing nothing is disaster." Much of the research and many proposals were prompted by Hurricane Ike, which hit on September 13, 2008, and was a Category 2 storm in terms of wind, with surge levels more like those of a larger storm.

Damages, which cost $25 billion, came not only from the surge but from the water flowing back in from the bay side.

The Port of Houston's website lists the Houston Ship Channel as second in the nation in overall tonnage and first in U.S. imports and U.S. export tonnage; it handles 41 percent of project cargo at Gulf Coast ports. The port is also the home of the nation's largest petrochemical complex, the second largest in the world. Estimates indicate that if a storm surge overwhelmed the complex, the spill volume could range from 2.9 million gallons at 10 feet of water to 289.7 million gallons at 30 feet of water.

For a major surge event, FEDERAP (Facility Economic Damage and Environmental Release Assessment Planning) models estimate a baseline condition of $37 billion to $73 billion dollars just for flood damage to the industrial facility, not including cleanup or lost production costs for the economies. Such an event would have a substantial impact on a local, regional, national and international scale.

And though the costs are staggering, the biggest concern should be the looming ecological and shoreline disaster, which would devastate industry and neighborhoods alike. Imagine oil-soaked beaches, dead animals, contaminated fishing supplies and destroyed wetlands — an area suddenly unattractive for living, recreation, tourism, birding and fishing. In a considerable surge situation, the Houston-Galveston region's expected spill is at least 10 times the Exxon Valdez Spill — and as of 2014, Prince William Sound still has oil on its beaches, traces of the spill in mussels and an ecosystem that has not fully recovered.

Other disasters can only begin to approximate the damage: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill was in open water, not an estuary bay, and the Murphy Oil USA refinery spill following Katrina was only one tank, not many. (Neena Satija of The Texas Tribune provides an interactive map of the flooding.)

Considering the risk of a disaster in the bay without any action, it is equally important to understand what a proposal for the bay could produce for the community. One new option for the mid-bay strategy begins to fulfill some of Colbert's early hopes. Designed by Rogers Partners Architects+Urban Designers of New York and Houston, the strategy, developed as part of the Houston-Galveston Area Protection System (HGAPS), asks what else a protection system can do, how it can function for a community during the 99 percent of the time when there is no storm surge.

Firm principal Rob Rogers, FAIA, a Rice graduate, has regional as well as national urban design experience. Rogers Partners' design for the mid-bay strategy, like much of their work, is, says Rogers, "focused on the intersection of landscape, architecture and urbanism." The firm's design for the new St. Pete Pier in St. Petersburg, Florida, establishes connections between the public and nature, commerce and transit. To promote security post 9/11, for the New York Stock Exchange Streetscapes, instead of putting up standard bollards, Rogers Partners created a barrier that doubles as a pedestrian amenity.

When Charles Penland, a senior principal at Walter P. Moore — who also participates at SSPEED at Rice and serves on the board of the Houston Water Authority and the Environmental Committee of EWRI — reached out about the project, intriguing opportunities already existed in the infrastructure and at dredging sites. "Can we create a barrier that improves the habitats, water quality, and wetlands while providing a net benefit and value for the bay?" he remembers asking early in the process.

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