Rice wins $3.1M to develop storm strategy for Houston-Galveston

Rice-based SSPEED Center leads effort to protect region from storms and hurricanes

Houston Endowment has awarded Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center a three-year, $3.1 million grant to develop a comprehensive strategy to prepare and protect the Houston-Galveston region from severe storms and hurricanes.

Phil Bedient

In the wake of Hurricane Ike in 2008, the SSPEED Center began conducting research with the goal of better preparing and defending Houston and Galveston from future storm surge and flooding. Houston Endowment has consistently funded this research, and the new grant calls for the SSPEED Center to build upon its prior research and create a comprehensive strategy known as the “Houston-Galveston Area Protection System” (H-GAPS).

“With this next phase of funding, the SSPEED Center will begin to conduct regional evaluations of the various alternative proposals that have been put forward for regional storm protection,” said Phil Bedient, director of the SSPEED Center and Rice’s Herman Brown Professor of Engineering. “Among other things, a primary goal is to develop a comprehensive program for the protection of industries along the Houston Ship Channel and the Bayport area as well as residential development in the Clear Lake and Galveston Island communities.”

The SSPEED-proposed Centennial Gate would provide storm-surge protection to the Houston Ship Channel.

Early efforts of the SSPEED Center were focused on lessons learned from Hurricane Ike. The center’s most recent work focused on developing a flood-protection strategy inspired by the Dutch concept of “multiple lines of defense.” The SSPEED-proposed Centennial Gate, a Rotterdam-style floodgate near the Fred Hartman Bridge, would protect the region’s core industries along the Houston Ship Channel. A nonstructural line of defense is the SSPEED-proposed Lone Star Coastal National Recreation Area (LSCNRA), a proposed unit of the National Park System that would create ecotourism and recreation-based economic activity that could withstand surge flooding. LSCNRA is being implemented by a coalition of state, local and federal governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations, led by Houston businessman John Nau and the National Parks Conservation Association.

Jim Blackburn

“Our work so far has produced two excellent solutions — the Centennial Gate to protect the Ship Channel and two landscape-scale green-space concepts for the low-lying, undeveloped areas,” said SSPEED Co-director Jim Blackburn, co-principal investigator on the project and professor in the practice of environmental law at Rice. “Now we have to go back to work and develop solutions for the developed west side of Galveston Bay and Galveston Island to protect them from surge flooding. We know that these solutions are hard to develop, but we are confident that we can offer substantial protection.”

The new grant will provide for research in four important areas. One is development of the H-GAPS protection system that includes the Centennial Gate, green-space alternatives and other structural and nonstructural alternatives to protect both residential and industrial development. Another research priority is comparing the social, economic and environmental consequences of alternative courses of action. This research track will include an evaluation of the impacts

This diagram shows the existing levee at Texas City and the Galveston seawall, as well as two alternative locations for the Centennial Gate, two regional green-space solutions and other surge-mitigation measures that Rice's SSPEED Center will be evaluating in a new study funded by Houston Endowment.

of the Ike Dike, a proposed multibillion-dollar seawall that would run the length of Galveston Island and Boliver Peninsula. The third research area will focus on the development of a free-market system to buy and sell ecological services through a marketplace that will promote both economic development and flood storage capabilities. The fourth research priority is to identify creative concepts for modifying and using the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012.

Bedient and Blackburn said the H-GAPS evaluation will include two alternative locations for the Centennial Gate, two proposals for regional green-space solutions and other surge-mitigation measures, including a proposal to construct oyster reefs in Galveston Bay, a plan for the creative disposal of dredged material, as well as options for elevated roadways and levee protection for the city of Galveston. The new Houston Endowment funding also will allow for the creation of a more sophisticated storm-surge computer model for Galveston Bay that will allow the researchers to evaluate and compare combinations of alternatives relatively quickly to determine the optimal size and arrangement of combined options.

“Without the leadership of Houston Endowment, this work would not be possible,” Bedient said.

“Solving surge flooding is a local and regional issue that Houston Endowment has taken on its shoulders,” Blackburn said. “We are proud to have their support.”


About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.