About 20 minutes before the Bay Area Houston Storm Surge Flood Forum was set to start, every seat in the community center was full.
So, volunteers added chairs. And more chairs.
Before a packed room March 7, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers laid out its tentative plans for a $32 billion series of more than 70 miles of levees, barriers and sea gates on Galveston Island, Bolivar Peninsula and around Galveston Bay to protect against storm surges caused by hurricanes.
Representatives from the corps presented their concept and ideas ahead of seven speakers who spoke of concerns about the massive project and its effects, not so much in Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula, but to the region as a whole.
“We are starting to look at the separate pieces of this plan now to determine if we need all of it, or some pieces of it,” Kelly Burks-Copes, the project manager for the corps, said.
The goal of the outreach effort isn’t so much to present the public with a finished plan as to show people the broad vision of the planning so far, officials said.
Burks-Copes began her presentation by saying the corps was considering a second set of public meetings once its designs of the coastal barrier system have been improved.
But once representatives from the corps finished their presentation, speakers from six other groups addressed their own particular concerns with the barrier project.
“Building the Ike Dike might be the right move,” said Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation. “But let’s make an informed decision with regard to its environmental impact.”
Rice University Professor Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters Center, known as the SSPEED Center, led off the post-corps’ conversation by detailing his research on an alternative plan and years of advocating for an alternative to a storm surge barrier built directly on the coast.
Instead, the center has said barriers within the bay and measures such as building dredge spoil islands to disrupt storm surge waves would be more cost-effective than a massive barrier system.
Representatives from the other groups seemed supportive of the center’s research.
“The mid-bay concept advocated by Mr. Blackburn wasn’t even included in the corps’ analysis,” Stokes said.
Several speakers referred to the project proposed by the corps as the “Ike Dike,” although that technically refers to a Texas A&M University at Galveston proposal that would place two massive floodgates across the San Luis Pass and Bolivar Roads, at the mouth of the Galveston Ship channel.
While opposition to the corps’ plan isn’t new — groups in both Galveston and on Bolivar Peninsula have packed earlier meetings — the gathering shows signs that pushback to the plan might be evolving in the northern parts of Galveston County and southern Harris County along the bay.
The Houston Region Concerned Citizens group, which previously worked on the Harris County bond referendums, and the Houston section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics hosted the March 7 meeting, but speakers included a who’s who of the region’s environmental groups.
Speakers included representatives of the Sierra Club Houston, Bayou City Waterkeeper and Texas A&M University, although that professor said he spoke only for himself.
Released last fall, the corps’ proposal has generated significant public opposition from people worried about effects on their personal property and on long-term environmental costs.
The corps’ public comment deadline was Feb. 9. A final plan is expected in 2021.