Dutchies in Texas

Engineers from Delft have designed a kind of Delta plan for Texas. The aim is to protect the inhabitants in and around Houston against floods caused by hurricanes.

A collection of flexible storm- surge barriers, double dikes and multifunctional coastal defences are covered in the book Delft Delta Design. This ‘Delta plan’ shows what can be done and aims to provide subject matter for discussion. ‘We are taking the ingredients we need with us’ says Prof. Bas Jonkman, Professor of Hydraulic Engineering in the faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences (CEG). ‘It is up to them to make something nice with them.’

Aerial view of the residential community of Gilchrist after hurricane Ike. (Photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA)

Aerial view of the residential community of Gilchrist after hurricane Ike. (Photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA)

The awful calamity of 1900 has not been forgotten. A storm surge flooded the port of Galveston, leaving it between 2 to 4 metres underwater. Around 8,000 people perished and the harbour was never the same again. On average, a hurricane hits the area once every nine years, the most recent being Ike in September 2008.

About six million people live around the Galveston Bay estuary that is about the size of the IJsselmeer. There are mudflats and sandbanks in the bay that provide a rich source of nutrients for shrimps, crabs, oysters and fish. It is an important stopping-off point for migratory birds on their route between North and South America. The nearby Houston harbour is home to a lot of petrochemical industry, comparable to Europoort near Rotterdam. Around the city of Texas, development tends to take the form of urban sprawl. Many incomers have little knowledge of the area’s low-lying location and lack of effective dikes. Finally, on the Bolivar Peninsula, many houses are built on piles to protect against high water.
However, they have no protection against a hurricane, as Ike recently revealed.

‘People have become more aware of how vulnerable the area is’, says Antonia Sebastian, MSc., from Houston’s Rice University who spent ten months in Delft on a Fulbright scholarship. ‘It started with Katrina that devastated New Orleans in 2005. When hurricane Rita was heading for Houston a month later, 100 people were killed in the evacuation. This led Rice University to establish the Sspeed Center (Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters, ed.). After Ike (2008), the centre received additional funding for its activities.’

By that time, Professor William Merrell from the Texas A&M University at Galveston was already working on a plan for an Ike Dike or coastal spine. His aim was to improve the protection of the coast and islands around Galveston Bay and prevent a storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico. His plans were the equivalent of a Delta Works for Texas.

This is why, starting in 2011, two separate groups of Texans visited TU Delft. Staff from the Sspeed Center visited Professor Han Meyer in Architecture and the Built Environment. Meyer is one of the chairs of the Delft Infrastructures & Mobility Initiative (Dimi). He was also involved as an urban designer in transforming New Orleans after Katrina.

At CEG, Professor in Hydraulic Engineering Bas Jonkman welcomed colleagues from the Texas A & M University who were eager to find out more about the Delta Works and navigational surge barriers. Based in Galveston, the A&M researchers were more interested in a primary line of defence against the Gulf of Mexico than in local protection for Houston and its industry.

‘Two years ago, A&M and Rice were in two different camps’, recalls Sebastian. ‘A&M wanted a coastal spine, but the Sspeed people were more interested in how they could combine the dikes and dams in and around Houston into a single defence system.’

It did not take long before efforts on the Texas project at TU Delft were linked together. The design studio Delta Interventions (led by Han Meyer) began working with final-year students in hydraulic engineering and researchers at TPM.

The book has fifty authors, including five doctoral candidates, 23 final-year students and senior researchers from both Delft and Texas. Although awareness of the vulnerability to flooding may have increased, work has yet to start, since no funding is available. Most of the research conducted so far has also been unpaid, and is thanks to all the final-year students, occasionally supported by a trip, a business internship, etc. Sebastian believes that the cultural differences between Texans and the Dutch play a role. ‘The Dutch avoid risks and have great trust in the government. In Texas, the opposite applies: people hate the government and prefer to look after themselves.’ But the realisation that major hydraulic engineering work is based on solidarity is only slowly sinking in.

There is also the golden rule of hydraulic engineering: the money only comes after a flood. That was also the case with Katrina (18 billion dollars invested) and after Sandy had flooded New York and New Jersey (12 billion dollars spent on measures). Ike was the exception, but it still caused 25 billion dollars’ worth of damage. The demise of Goldman Sachs ten days after the hurricane seized all of the media’s attention and Ike was quickly forgotten.

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