HOUSTON (CN) – The tropical storms swamping Houston are child’s play compared to what a hurricane could unleash from the sea: A 25-foot surge ripping up the ship channel, pushing 200,000-barrel oil storage tanks like they were marbles, an expert said Thursday.
“We’ve got a coast, sometimes we forget,” Rice University environmental engineering professor Jim Blackburn said at a symposium on natural disasters in the Houston area organized by Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan.
The Army Corps of Engineers is still getting input from the public and doing environmental assessments for a planned $31 billion flood control project, the main component of which will be a gate across the mouth of Galveston Bay that Blackburn said will be “the largest flood control structure in the world.”
But the so-called coastal spine is not projected to be finished until 2036. And the dozens of chemical plants and refineries lining the Houston Ship Channel, which flows through Galveston Bay, would be no match for a 25-foot storm surge.
“Our industrial complex is totally inundated, every facility is flooded at 25 feet,” Blackburn said.
“Surge flooding is violent,” he added. “We’re talking about wind-driven water with waves on top. Waves are pounding, pounding, pounding. A wave can pick up and toss a container.”
As Exhibit A of the power of storm surges, Blackburn said Hurricane Katrina unleashed one in 2005 that knocked over a Mississippi River levee and flooded Murphy Oil USA’s refinery in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.
The water dislodged a 250,000-barrel oil storage tank from its moorings and moved it 37 feet. It leaked more than 25,000 barrels and the contaminated water flooded 1,700 homes.
“If the storm surge hits like I’m talking about, you can forget about Houston’s economy and you can forget about Galveston Bay,” Blackburn told 40 people at the symposium, held in the basement of the Harris County Law Library in downtown Houston.
The professor’s presentation followed one from attorney Charles Irvine of the Houston firm Irvine & Conner.
Irvine is lead counsel for hundreds of homeowners who sued the Army Corps of Engineers in U.S. Federal Claims Court after water from Hurricane Harvey backed up behind two dams 20 miles west of downtown Houston and flooded their homes in August 2017.
Irvine has argued in that litigation that the Corps of Engineers knew monstrous rain storms regularly struck Houston, going back to 1899, when it built the dams in the 1940s.
But he said it did not buy enough land to prevent homes from being built in the danger zone, knowing it was risking litigation and the government having to pay a large settlement to home and business owners.
The Corps claims in court filings that the more than 50 inches Harvey dumped on parts of Greater Houston was an unprecedented event.
“Hurricane Harvey was the largest storm in the recorded history of the United States,” Justice Department attorneys representing the Corps of Engineers have repeatedly claimed in legal briefs for the dam flooding case.
The feds claimed in an Aug. 20 brief that Harvey’s rainfall was an unprecedented “act of God,” which Texas courts have recognized as a defense against “allegedly unlawful diversions of water.”
But Irvine said he’s obtained thousands of pages of Corps of Engineers documents in discovery in which the agency said the area upstream of the dams would flood.
“It was just a matter of time,” Irvine said.
Irvine said he’s become well-acquainted with what floodwaters do to homes from working with his clients. He held his fingers 1 inch apart and said even that much water entering a home under the floorboards can be disastrous.
“It wicks up walls and gets in insulation,” he said. Only if the power stays on can mold be contained, because air conditioning prevents its growth, Irvine said.
Blackburn agreed with Irvine that large tropical storms like Harvey have struck the Houston area again and again since the late 1800s. But he said climate change has made them more powerful.
As for the act of God defense for floods, Blackburn said he thinks it’s on its last legs.
“I think with flooding we are about to see the act of God defense totally disappear,” he said. “All of this is, I think, foreseeable. We’re talking about 25 feet of [storm] surge with a small category 4 storm, high category 3. That’s nothing.”