Is Houston-area prepared for a major hurricane? A status update on projects seeking to mitigate impact

Is the Houston area ready for another hurricane?

HOUSTON – Hurricane Laura was another near-miss for the Houston region. Following Laura’s landfall in Louisiana, KPRC 2 checked on the status of several projects designed to help mitigate damage from a hurricane hitting our part of the Texas coast.

“How protected is this region from a major hurricane hitting, as we all say, the right spot?” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

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“We are no more protected than when Hurricane Ike hit,” said Galveston County Judge Mark Henry. “(We’re) slightly more prepared from an evacuation and communication stand-point, but we’re not any more prepared to deal with storm surge.”

Henry is talking about numerous studies that show that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hitting just west of Galveston could produce a 25-30-foot surge that could push into Galveston Bay, up the Ship Channel and all the way to the 610 Loop.

“Today, we’re looking at a very different reality. We’re looking at storms that are getting bigger and bigger,” said Jim Blackburn, co-director of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education, & Evacuation from Disasters Center. “If we don’t solve for that big storm, we’re going to get hit by it. It’s coming, it’s just a question of when.”

Blackburn estimates hundreds of thousands of homes would be underwater, not to mention swamping an area responsible for 42% of the country’s petrochemical manufacturing capacity, according to the Greater Houston Partnership.

“From a national security stand-point it would shut down the source of much of the military-grade jet fuel in the United States and about 12% of our refining capacity,” said Blackburn.

Possible surge from a Cat 4 Hurricane (courtesy of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education, & Evacuation from Disasters Center) (KPRC)

What is the status of coastal protection projects?

The US Army Corps of Engineers has gotten the green light on coastal protection projects from Sabine Pass up to Galveston Bay and in Freeport. However, a project to protect Galveston Bay down to San Luis pass from storm surge is still in the planning stages.

“It’s a front line defense in front of Galveston going across the Galveston Bay inlet and also a secondary defense on the backside of Galveston and into the west bay,” said Dr. Kelly Burks-Copes, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Here is an explanation of the proposed project:

A final report on this project will be complete by May, but then funding still has to be secured.

“It’s not going to be cheap. It’s going to be $8 billion at least,” said Henry. “The hook for the federal government is you’re going to spend less on FEMA claims and recovery dollars if you buy the insurance policy upfront.”

The East Harris County Manufacturer’s Association (EHCMA) was an early proponent of a coastal barrier project. EHCMA represents 130 manufacturing companies in Houston, Deer Park, Baytown, Pasadena, North Channel and La Porte.

“We support still and we recognize the benefit of it to our communities,” said EHCMA executive director, Dennis Winkler. “We want a system that’s going to protect all of our communities, not just the Ship Channel.”

Blackburn said part of the problem is designing a protection system that won’t damage Galveston Bay.

“We’re talking about projects that have the potential to cause great harm to Galveston Bay. It’s the second most productive estuary in the United States,” said Blackburn.

He and his colleagues have also recently proposed a plan to help mitigate storm surge in the bay. You can read more about the plan here.

Laura a near miss, but still caused damage along Texas coast

Henry points out the need for a coastal protection system can be seen in Laura’s near-miss. Henry said Laura didn’t hit us, but still did about $2 million in damage to the dunes protecting homes along the Bolivar Peninsula and flooded a portion of Highway 87.

City of Galveston officials sent KPRC 2 this assessment of damage from Laura:

"Damage from Hurricane Laura appears to be predominantly from storm surge. The NOAA tide station at the Galveston Bay entrance has preliminary data indicating the water levels were around +4 feet above predicted tide levels at around 5:42am on the morning that Laura made landfall.

Storm surge removed or redistributed sand and dune areas along the entire beachfront on Galveston Island. Sand was pushed by the surge onto landward properties, road surfaces and roadside ditches, and in swales in areas that had larger dune complexes. Areas that had very low, discontinuous frontal dune systems appeared to have been more susceptible to the scouring from the high water and wave action.

Those areas with structures on them within the extent of the shoreline that was inundated with the surge frequently received minor damage to breakaway/louvered walls, stairs and decks, and dune walkovers.

In areas where there had previously been a very narrow or discontinuous dune complex in between structures and the beach, scouring and undermining of driveway and foundation slabs underneath some structures was observed.

Areas that had a wide dune complex with a large, continuous back dune and swales and frontal dunes fared better, with the extent of the scouring and erosion being largely in front of the back dune."

Funding for the project

Funding for this portion of the project could come from the Water Resources Development Act of 2022. KPRC 2 asked all Texas congressional leaders on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee if they support funding this project.

Below is a list of responses received. KPRC 2 will continue to up this portion of the story as more responses are received.

Rep. Randy Weber (R-League City)

“As a member of the Water Resources & Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure (T&I), Rep. Weber has been actively engaged in the development of the so-called “Coastal Spine.” This is a project with cost estimates ranging from $12-$30 billion, and for it to come to fruition, it will take several years of planning and coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—who, along with the Texas General Land Office, is the co-lead on this project. As a Corps authorizer, Rep. Weber works closely with both agencies, as well as with the relevant appropriators,” wrote Lisa Reynolds, director of communication for Rep. Randy Weber.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Port Arthur)

"Southeast Texas is the global leader in creating reliable, affordable energy that powers America and the world. In order to continue leading in energy, it’s vital that our water infrastructure remains up-to-date. As a member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I have made this one of my top priorities,” wrote Congressman Brian Babin.

"In fact, one important initiative that I worked tirelessly to include in this year’s Water Resources and Development Act is part of the Sabine Pass to Galveston Bay project that will correct a drainage issue in Orange County and aid greatly in preventing future flooding in Southeast Texas. The success of this project will be a key component in the effort to strengthen the coastal spine.

"I believe that investing in storm mitigation efforts in Texas is imperative to building a more resilient community and preventing excess damage from future storms. When we invest in building back stronger infrastructure, we are protecting lives, supporting businesses, and saving billions of dollars in disaster relief. I’ll always do everything I can on the federal level to get this done.”

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-Houston)

As a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I have been an advocate for projects that will improve our existing infrastructure and increase the resiliency of our region, and that absolutely includes a project to protect our region and the Houston Ship Channel from a major storm surge. I look forward to reviewing the U.S. Army Corps Chief’s report when it is submitted before the next WRDA bill and working with local leaders on this vitally important project,” wrote Rep. Lizzie Fletcher.

What is the status of flood mitigation projects in the region?

Following Hurricane Harvey’s historic rainfall, Harris County voters approved more than $2 billion in bonds for a network of flood mitigation projects. The Harris County Flood Control District gave KPRC 2 this recent status report:

More information on the bond program can be found here.

The US Army Corps of Engineers also recently completed upgrades to Barker and Addicks dams to further mitigate flooding in the Houston area.

‘Luck is not planning’

Emergency management officials have longed urged the public to have plans in place for when a hurricane hits. Storm surge is far from the only problem. More than 100 mph winds can cause massive damage to an area. According to a 2017 US Census study of homes from The Woodlands to Houston to Sugar Land showed the median year a home was built is 1987.

While Texas does not have a unified building code, according to a recent study by Texas A&M University, and homes built after 2003 fared far better at withstanding storm damage.

“Although several small- to mid-size cities and many counties in Texas do not enforce a building code, the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association requires construction to the 2006 IRC for buildings within the first tier of coastal counties (Cameron, Willacy, Kenedy, Kleberg, Nueces, San Patricio, Refugio, Aransas, Calhoun, Matagorda, Brazoria, Galveston, Chambers and Jefferson counties),” the study found.

The lead researcher for the study, Dr. Maria Koliou also said factors like annual maintenance and a home’s facade can impact how well a residential structure weathers a storm.

“In strong wind hurricane events, isolated buildings in open areas might be more damaged than homes that are close to each other,” said Koliou.

Her colleague Dr. Stephanie Paal added that having homes remain largely intact is critical in areas where shelters may not be open and to help residents expedite repairs.

“Sheltering in place and the ability for our structures to withstand to some sort of integrity that we can shelter in place in these events is really, really important,” said Paal.

KPRC 2 has all the information you need to prepare a hurricane kit, find out if you live in an evacuation zone, as well as other critical pieces of information needed to prepare a thorough storm plan for your family. You can find all of that here.

Lights out

Power outages are another grueling after-affect of hurricanes. Both Entergy and CenterPoint Energy told KPRC 2 that hundreds of millions have been spent to strengthen our infrastructure against storms, but outages are inevitable. Hurricane Laura caused so much damage to Entergy’s system in southwest Louisiana that power had to be temporarily cut to customers in Galveston and Montgomery counties to prevent other parts of the company’s network from getting overloaded and creating more blackouts.

According to this Entergy outage map, thousands of residents in Calcasieu and Cameron parishes remain in the dark.

KPRC 2 asked both companies what improvement have been made to the infrastructure to better withstand storms.

Centerpoint’s response:

We continue to leverage technology that allows us to quickly isolate problems on our grid and restore service to customers. Examples include our Advanced Metering System (AMS) meters; use of real time analytics to assess, monitor and resolve cases; use of Intelligent Grid Switching Devices (IGSDs); and our continued ability to use Power Alert Service (PAS) to keep customers informed. CenterPoint Energy is continuously focused on a resilient electric grid, including replacing more than 3,000 wooden structures with concrete or steel structures since Hurricane Ike. Over the years, CenterPoint Energy has also evaluated its substations for their potential to flood and continues to develop mitigation methods depending on their locations and the likely source of floodwater, including gathering data from river flood gauges to determine the best elevations for new substations. In many cases, we have raised equipment high enough to survive a flood; other times we have elevated entire substations. We have also constructed flood walls to protect substations, including one near the Texas Medical Center and another in downtown Houston.

Since 2010, CenterPoint Energy has accelerated its storm hardening initiative to follow the recommendations of the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT). We have rebuilt hundreds of miles of wooden transmission lines to meet the latest NESC hurricane wind design criteria utilizing the latest technology in concrete and steel materials. CenterPoint Energy’s designs account for hurricane winds and incorporated anti-cascade features to minimize storm damage, and we continue to design to applicable industry standards. CenterPoint Energy makes annual investments to harden its distribution, transmission and substation facilities to increase their ability to withstand extreme weather events.

Entergy’s response:

ETI regularly inspects the transmission system and repairs and replaces components in order to keep the system in good working order. We also made substantial replacements and improvements of the system in response to prior hurricanes, and we are continually working to harden and upgrade our system.

Over the last 5 years (ending 2019), ETI place approximately $740 million of new transmission investments in service and has plans to continue this pace of investment over the next few years. The planned construction and other capital investments in transmission in ETI’s service area for 2020 through 2022 is approximately $665 million.

Entergy Texas' capital budget plan included over $1.9 billion in capital projects (power generation, transmission, and distribution) between 2018 and 2020. This investment helps Entergy Texas to be more prepared for and the region to better withstand major hurricanes and other storm events that are prevalent in the area.

One type of storm hardening is a direct result of lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey. For instance, Entergy Texas has raised several substation control houses, including Vidor, Viway, McDonald, Bevil, and Amelia Bulk substations, in an effort to harden the electric system from flooding. We also recently completed the construction of two major transmission projects, and the complete rebuild of a transmission line in Jasper County.

Additionally, we have a robust, proactive program to inspect our transmission and distribution poles across our region. This includes inspecting the poles and cross arms for defects. On the distribution side, we are inspecting 62,000 poles this year alone.

· Entergy Texas completed two major transmission projects (i.e. China-Stowell and Western Region Economic Project, including rebuilding Newton Bulk-Leach) that provide needed infrastructure to meet future demand. China-Stowell provides a new 25-mile, 230kV transmission line that provides an “additional lane” to provide reliable and affordable electricity to the area.

· Newton Bulk-Leach was a rebuild of 25 miles of the existing 138kV line from the substation in Newton to the substation near South Toledo Bend. This enhanced the current transmission infrastructure with more modern and efficient technology to better serve the region.

· Entergy Texas is participating in several Public Utility Commission of Texas task forces on hurricane restoration best practices. These efforts strengthen the collaboration between other Texas electric utilities and the State of Texas during future extreme weather events.

· Entergy Texas also secures additional mobile substations, as needed, to quickly restore power to affected customers.

· Entergy Texas invests in data analytics to improve response efforts, including flood forecasting to better predict water levels, so Entergy can deploy emergency protection at vulnerable equipment in a timely manner.

About the Authors:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”

Award-winning broadcast journalist covering local, regional, national and international stories. Recognized in the industry for subject matter expertise including: Legal/Court Research, the Space Industry, Education, Environmental Issues, Underserved Populations and Data Visualization.