Sat Feb 23, 2019 | 06:35
Another Killer Hurricane: Is the US Gulf Coast Ready for It?
Mon, 31 May 2010 06:33:13 GMT
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By Tahereh Ghanaati

Tuesday, June 1, marks the opening of the 2010 hurricane season and the experts maintain that this year will most likely be a 'doozy' with not just one, but several major storms similar to Katrina. Five years have passed since that hurricane battered the US Gulf Coast and with another killer season looming on the horizon, one can only wonder what the United States has done since that time to shore up the vulnerable region

The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center has announced that this year's hurricane season is expected to be “active” to “extremely active” with anywhere from 14 to 23 named storms forming in the Atlantic basin, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. A storm is given a name when its top winds reach a velocity of 39 miles per hour. NOAA went on to say that 8 to 14 of the storms would likely become hurricanes (with top winds of 74 mph or higher) and of those, 3 to 7 would grow into major hurricanes with wind speeds above 111 mph. Thus, it looks as if the United States Atlantic seaboard and Gulf Coast are due some seriously rough weather.

NOAA administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, who also serves as under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, said that if these predictions hold true "this season could be one of the most active on record and that the greater likelihood of storms brings an increased risk of a landfall. "In short," she said, "we urge everyone to be prepared.”

That is good advice, but just how well prepared are the coastal areas? And in particular, how well is the low-lying Gulf Coast prepared for a killer hurricane? As we mentioned earlier, the Gulf Coast was totally unprepared for Katrina and received the brunt of its fury. Has anything been done since that time to shore up the defenses of this particularly vulnerable region?

Well, let's see. The following scenario could just as easily happen to you - if you live anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico.

Meet Beauregard Dubois -- 'Beau' for short -- and his wife, Juanita. Beau, who is originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, moved to Houston 10 years ago where he met his wife and found a job in a refinery along the Houston Ship Channel. Today, Beau is pretty satisfied with his life. His 3-bedroom home in Pasadena is fully paid for and a few months ago, he bought a brand new vacation condominium in Galveston. His relatively high salary, along with plummeting real estate prices and low mortgage rates made the latter irresistible.

Beau knew when he bought the 'condo' that the sandbar, known as 'Galveston Island,' wouldn't stand an ice cream cone's chance in Hell against a 'big blow', but he also knew that the seawall, which the condo faces, is just about the safest place on the island. Just down the street from his condo is the Hotel Galvez, which has withstood every storm to hit Galveston since 1911. And then the mainland is just a hop, skip and jump away - across the I45 Bridge.

The day is hot and humid. As soon as Beau steps out onto his balcony, it hits him like a sledgehammer. Whew, is it hot out there! Tugging at the collar of his already sweat-darkened cowboy shirt, he squints up at the sun. It's reflecting off water as still as a sea of glass; but he has heard that there's a hurricane hovering out in the gulf. In fact, the National Weather Service has just issued a new bulletin. The hurricane watch has become a warning. It looks like the big squall is heading straight for Galveston. Beau hears the television anchor through the open balcony door. It looks like this storm is now packing winds of 165 mph. That's a lot worse than Ike, which hit Galveston back in '08. Beau talks it over with Juanita and they decide to 'get out of Dodge.' They've got plenty of time, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

After securing the condo, he slings the hastily packed suitcases onto the backseat and she brings out a thermos of strong, chicory-spiked Cajun coffee. They'll be back home in Pasadena long before the storm hits. Beau wheels out onto Seawall Blvd. and heads for the I45 Bridge.

Four hours later they're stuck at the top of the bridge, which has become a veritable parking lot of thousands of stranded motorists. An 18-wheeler has overturned blocking traffic and according to hearsay, the other side of the hump, the mainland side, is already flooded and impassable. As the screeching gale-force wind shakes and buffets the little car, Juanita, white-faced and trembling fumbles in her bag for her rosary. An extra-strong gust of wind slams the car, which is in the outside lane, against the guardrail. Enough of this, Beau decides. If that rail were to give way, the car could be blown right off the bridge and into the gulf. Wrestling the door open, he is immediately assaulted by gale force winds and driving rain that whips and lashes at his face like a million tiny needles. Nevertheless, he manages to get out of the car and hauls Juanita out as well. But even the bridge doesn't seem solid anymore. It is swaying and groaning as the powerful surf slams into the pilings far below. He sees that other people have gotten out of their vehicles, as well and are huddling together in the center of the bridge for maximum safety. A piece of the guardrail ahead suddenly gives way and a car sails over the side and into the void. Suddenly, above the howling wind, they hear an ominous crack followed by an ear-splitting boom. The concrete beneath their feet heaves and shakes. A section of the bridge has collapsed and Beau realizes that he has made a terrible mistake. The stranded motorists cling to one another in abject terror.

If the above scenario might seem too melodramatic, think again. According to a Houston-based think tank, it definitely could happen to numbers of people

A recent report by Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED), a research consortium of Texas universities, maintains that a major hurricane could endanger tens of thousands of lives, economically devastate the Houston-Galveston area and have a national impact, potentially crippling refineries.

Professor of Engineering at Rice University and SSPEED Director Phil Bedient, who also co-authored the report says that the warning signs are "across the board." Pointing to Ike, which was a Category 2 hurricane, and caused $30 billion in damage, Bedient says that the same storm could easily have caused $100 billion in damage had it struck 30 miles farther south. Moreover, if it had struck that location as a Category 4 storm, the results would have been catastrophic.

The report, which is the result of an ongoing two-year study, maintains that the present dikes and levees along the Houston Ship Channel, which proved barely adequate during Hurricane Ike, would fail to protect all of the petrochemical refineries lining the busy channel from the storm surge of a more powerful hurricane. In fact, they might not even protect those refineries from another Category 2 storm, if it were to strike farther south.

The report also relates that more than 65 percent of the expanse of the bridges crossing water in the Galveston Bay area might be particularly vulnerable to damage from a powerful hurricane like Katrina. And the present, existing highway infrastructure to evacuate the 1 million residents living in the danger zones is inadequate.

Bedient says that all one has to do to understand the gravity of the situation and gain a clear sense of the region's vulnerability is take a look at the Houston Ship Channel. The channel, which is a waterway connecting the Port of Houston -- one of the country's busiest ports -- to Galveston Bay, is lined with one-fourth of all the oil refineries and petrochemical plants in the United States.

The U.S. Coast Guard has estimated that a 30-day closure of a major port like Houston would cost the national economy $60 billion. And if a hurricane were to actually "come up the shoot," as Houstonians have long feared, the damage done to the refineries, the port -- and the city, itself - would be unimaginable. But despite the proverbial 'handwriting on the wall' and the devastation wrought by Katrina, government regulations remain woefully inadequate, requiring dikes and levees to protect ship channel facilities against a so-called '100-year flood', which means against flood waters no more than 14-to-15 feet deep.

According to Bedient, supercomputer models at the University of Texas, Austin have revealed that even Ike, which was a Category 2 hurricane, could have caused a 20-to 25-foot storm surge along the Ship Channel if it had struck about 30 miles farther south.

If Houston is at risk, New Orleans is even more so. According to a number of experts, repairs done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the city's faulty levee system in the wake of Katrina were totally inadequate, leaving the city vulnerable to a repeat performance.
Thus two of the largest and most important cities on the Gulf Coast, Houston and New Orleans will be virtually defenseless against a killer hurricane. The same can be said about the entire Gulf Coast.
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