Vulnerable Galveston spared so far from Harvey flooding

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Galveston, the Texas coastal city long exposed to the worst storms off the Gulf of Mexico, has been able to avoid major flooding from Hurricane Harvey with its seawall and protective levee systems, engineers and local officials said on Saturday.

The city of 57,000, devastated in 1900 by the most deadly hurricane in U.S. history, was spared a direct hit as Harvey made landfall about 200 miles (321 km) south on Friday night as a powerful Category 4 storm. [L2N1LC088]

In 2008, Hurricane Ike squarely hit the barrier island near Houston, damaging or destroying 80 percent of Galveston’s homes and killing 36 people in the area.

On Saturday, the county’s system of drainage pumps was operating at full capacity and able to keep up with the volume of water, said County Judge Mark Henry, chief administrator for the county.

“So far, I think we are doing fine,” said Henry.

The pumps take water from behind protective levees, a barrier between the island and Galveston Bay, and dump the water into the bay.

Some of Galveston County’s petrochemical facilities are surrounded by a 16-foot-tall (5 m) levee system that is not close to breaching, Henry said. The 10-mile (16 km) long, 17-foot (5 meter) high Galveston seawall also was not breached.

The county has been helped by breaks in the rain, which allow runoff to drain away, Henry said.

At least 10 inches (25 cm) of rain have fallen in the Galveston region since Friday and another 10 or more inches could fall in the next two days. Much of the rain has come in intermittent bursts.

“If this storm made a direct hit on Galveston, it would have created a significant flooding event for the area,” said Phil Bedient, a civil engineering professor at Houston’s Rice University. “For now, unless things take a turn for the worse, I would say Galveston should be OK.”

Local officials are hoping Harvey will highlight the need for federal funding for the $12 billion Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District (GCCPRD), which would help further protect the city and county from storm surges and rising tides from climate change.

“I am hoping that Harvey will be the green light we need to get congressional funding,” Henry said. The project has not yet been formally presented to Congress.

For a look at the Reuters investigative series 'Water's Edge', on America's vulnerable shores, click here: here


Both Henry and Bedient warned that Galveston’s perch on the coastal bay sits dangerously exposed to storm surges and needs protection from new infrastructure.

Between Galveston and mainland Texas is Galveston Bay, connected to Houston by the 50-mile (80 km) Houston Ship Channel. The entire area, once marshy wetlands, holds roughly $100 billion in oil refineries, chemical plants and other infrastructure.

“The back of Galveston does need levee protection,” said Bedient. “It’s just sitting there, exposed.”

Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Mary Milliken