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Storm Surge and the Houston Ship Channel: A National Security Issue?

Jim Blackburn, a professor at Rice University noted for his work in predicting and modeling the effects of severe storms, has released an except from a larger paper that he is preparing with Amy Jaffe of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The report, titled “Storm Surge and the Future of the Houston Ship Channel,” models a series of storms with increasing intensity to examine their impact on Galveston, Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel.

Houston ship channel, chemical plant and tank farm.

Refining Capacity Vs. Surge Height

The report begins by outlining the importance of these areas for national security. For instance, this Bay and Ship Channel are home to eight major refiners and more than 200 chemical plants that provide 12% of U.S. refining capacity, 27% of the nation’s jet fuel, 13% of the nation’s gasoline, and 25% of the nation’s ethylene and propylene.

Blackburn and Jaffe note that the largest surges recorded up the Houston Ship Channel to date were from Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Carla in 1961. Neither of those storms generated more than about 13 to 14 feet of surge, a level that can generally be accommodated by industry. 

Modeling Surge Damage from Future Storms

The authors then play “what if.” What if the winds were 15 mph stronger and extended out a few miles farther? The “what if” scenarios are based on recent storms such as Hurricanes Irma and Maria (Category 4 and 5 storms) with hurricane force winds extending 80 miles out from the center. Such storms could generate surges in the range of 22 to 25 feet in the ship channel. Those are NOT levels that industry could handle with existing dikes.

An associate of Blackburn’s, Dr. Jamie Padgett of Rice’s SSPEED Center, predicts that some percentage of storage tanks would fail. They would either be lifted off their foundations, crushed by water or penetrated by debris. Dr. Padgett’s team estimated that a 24-foot surge event could lead to the release of at least 90 million gallons of oil and hazardous substances. It could threaten the US economy and raise concerns about the availability of transportation fuel.

Confined in Galveston Bay and its surrounding wetlands, such spills could also turn into an environmental debacle that lasts for decades. Far fetched? Consider what happened this week when a fire erupted in a few storage tanks at one facility in Deer Park. It shut down the entire city for close to a week.

Significantly, the modeled surge event does not include the effects of sea-level rise or climate change.

Inability to Deal with Mitigation

Blackburn and Jaffe then shift their focus to mitigation strategies such as the Ike Dike and the Galveston Bay Park Plan. I will not review those here; they have received much coverage in other venues. And the report contains far more detail than any summary could.

The authors conclude by saying, “A major threat exists to the refining and chemical industrial complex that is based around Galveston Bay. This issue has not received the attention that it should from a national security perspective, from a national economic stability perspective and from an environmental risk perspective. The SSPEED Center’s experience in modeling and planning to protect the channel highlights the disconnect between past observations and future likely events being encountered everyday throughout the world with our changing climate. We are facing situations that differ from the past, but we seemingly lack the institutional ability or fortitude to address these future risks and avoid the national security consequences that are foreseen and forewarned.”

“What If” We Actually Came to Grips with Flood Mitigation?

Whether you believe in climate change or not, it worries me to think about what would happen if a storm like Maria came up the throat of Galveston Bay like Ike did. We had two storms in the last decade (Ike and Harvey) that wiped out major portions of the region. The possibilities are not remote that another could strike before we prepare for it. I wish someone had done this kind of analysis with a rainfall event like Harvey before Harvey hit. Think how different life might be right now.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/22/2019

570 Days since Hurricane Harvey