Experts say Houston Ship Channel has 'zero protection against storm surge'

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Researchers at Rice University are warning of the environmental disaster that is to come if nothing is done to protect the Houston Ship Channel from a major hurricane.

"We have literally thousands of storage tanks along the ship channel and they are not designed to be surrounded by water," said Jim Blackburn, the co-director of Rice University's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center.

The Houston Ship Channel is a major artery for America's oil, gas and chemical production.

It is also the largest petrochemical complex in the country. However, Terry O'Rourke with the Harris County Attorney's Office said it sits unprotected against a major hurricane.

"We have zero protection against storm surge," said O'Rourke.

Last week, Hurricane Laura's power as it made landfall along the Louisiana coast jolted attention back home.

"I think Laura convinced a lot of people we are too vulnerable," said Blackburn.

Blackburn said climate change in the Gulf is creating more powerful storms and creating them more frequently.

"We're seeing Cat 4s and Cat 5s more often, and just look at Laura, it blew up overnight," he said.

Plus, if a storm like Laura hits us both men warn of dire consequences.

"This would be a chemical Chernobyl for us. It is unthinkable what all of this chemical waste would do," said O'Rourke, who is now urging county leaders to take a second look at the Galveston Bay Park project, which was co-created several years ago by Blackburn.

"Right now, we're looking at building this with permits," said Blackburn.

The concept is to build a dike and levee system running north and south from Baytown to Texas City.

The group also wants to create a 10,000-acre park along that levee wall inside Galveston Bay.

"Environmentally, it would be a good thing, but recreationally, it would be terrific because it would give people a place to go," said O'Rourke.

Blackburn said there would be opportunities for camping, fishing, kayaking, and bird watching.

A separate study to provide protection for the Houston Ship Channel is currently underway from the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers called the Coastal Texas Study.

It will build a system of dune and levee walls along the entire Texas Gulf coast.

It also incorporates a three-prong approach to storm surge including and expanding on the Ike Dike concept originally created by Texas A&M University Galveston, which places a series of levees and gates at the mouth of Galveston Bay.

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The Coastal Texas Study project is estimated to cost between $23 and $32 billion with completion in 2045.

"We need a multi-tiered approach to ensure maximum protection. We'll never have total protection against mother nature," said Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

He wants to see both multi-billion dollar projects move forward as tandem projects before the next major storm creates the catastrophe experts predict.

"We know that it's going to happen, [it's] just a question of when and we are not prepared. That is the horrible reality," said O'Rourke.

Garcia said it will take a multi-county effort to keep the funding local and the timeline fast.

He is hoping to meet with regional leaders from Harris, Galveston, Chambers and Liberty counties in the coming weeks.

For more information on the SSPEED Center, explore their website here.

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