As Hurricane Ike howls toward the Texas coast, its economic effects are certain to be very broad both because of the storm’s massive width and because of overbuilt coastal areas as people push ever closer to the charm of the sea and ignore danger warnings that experts have sounded for years.
Ike’s significant effects will be felt as far as 250 miles from the storm’s center, and nary a stretch of the Gulf, from Florida through Louisiana all the way across Texas and into Mexico, will be spared Ike’s battering winds, tornadoes and torrential rains. Even after Ike’s landfall, its major effects will be felt as far inland as Kansas City through next week.
But scientists say the Texas coast, unlike any other in the world, is especially vulnerable to ocean storms — let alone to something so powerful as a hurricane.
It comes down to too many beachfront homes, sinking land wrought by overdevelopment and coastal river dams that reduce sediment buildup, and a rising ocean due to climate change — all on a dry flatland with few defenses against an angry sea.
Flat, sandy face to the sea
The Texas coast as shown on today’s maps is very young geologically, only about 3,000 years. Glacial oceans receded and left the Lone Star state with a flat, sandy face to the sea, whose ever-present currents have shaped the long spits of barrier islands prized by beachfront developers. These developers have capitalized on land values bidded up by those who love the surf and sand by day and listen to the ocean breezes from the comfort of a modern bedroom by night.
But change is the only constant along flat, sandy shores, and the Texas shores are the most prone to change of nearly any extended coastal region in the world.
Storms rearrange things, but they only cause economic damage if there’s something to blow down or flood — like homes that have crowded Texas beaches along the eastern areas near Louisiana and those portions of the increasingly popular Padre Island between Corpus Christi and Brownsville that are not federally owned.
When Ike hits land this weekend, watch the TV images of expensive homes on stilts that will come crashing down and be reduced to kindling by the pounding storm surge. As you take in the damage, keep in mind that taxpayer-subsidized flood insurance will help put those homes back up and, like ten pins, wait for the next inevitable storm to bowl them back over. Some places have been rebuilt several times with federal insurance, which critics say is only in place to enhance property values that financially reward a small band of developers.
But with housing and other development on the sandy spits of land comes wells that draw down groundwater and contribute to “subsidence,” or sinking of land.
Lack of sediment flowing into the sea
Researchers at Rice University in Houston have found another contributor to “subsidence,” and that’s the lack of sediment flowing into the sea due to irrigation and power dams that have been built on virtually every coastal river. Without the sediment load, there is less and less sand available to the ocean currents to shape and build up the protective barrier islands.
Land along the Texas Gulf Coast is sinking at the rate of about 2 inches per decade, which may not seem like much. However, the ocean in the same region is rising at a rate that, geologically, is incredibly fast: nearly 15 inches per decade. It’s the effect of global warming that scientific models show will continue to increase at an increasing pace.
The net change of 17 inches per decade may not seem like much, but when there’s so little elevation to begin with, even a small amount of sinking is noticed. In fact, many parts of the barrier island complex is so low that Ike’s storm surge will wash right over the top — and that rearranges a lot of sand overnight.
While federal and state officials have tried for decades to adjust the subsidized insurance programs to require those who build in danger zones to foot more of the bill, they have faced enormous opposing political pressures that, mostly, have won out. Which means developers are still going to make a lot of money setting up ten pins.
And each time a seaside villa on stilts buckles and falls as you watch on television this weekend, just know that the house had no business being there — especially along the Texas coast — and you will help pay to put it back up.