Texas A&M Galveston researchers seeking to improve life in coastal regions.    

Brody and studentsTheir names are Alicia, Rita and Ike. There’s even one known by the number 1900.  These and other hurricanes have killed thousands of people, destroyed scores of buildings and wreaked havoc on Texas and the nation.

The Texas Gulf coast is increasingly vulnerable to storms due to population growth and development.  But, Dr. Samuel Brody, director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University at Galveston and his colleagues offer solutions to improve how coastal communities protect lives and prevent losses related to natural disasters.

Coastal planners Brody and Dr. Philip Berke say that people should be more aware of risks related to living near the coast. “On the local level haphazard expansion and settlement patterns disrupted by disasters impact both local and national economy,” Berke said. “Increasingly, we’ll see rebuilding costs after disasters shift from the federal to state and local governments due to national budgetary pressures.”

Brody said there is urgency in putting strategic natural disaster policies and incentives in place.  “Given the increasing loss of property and livelihoods caused by coastal flooding events, we need to encourage developers to build in the least vulnerable areas,” he said.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Department of Transportation and others, Brody, Berke and their research team are examining impacts of human activity upon the natural environment, perceptions of safety afforded by flood designation areas, as well as strategies to ensure safe vehicular evacuations.

Brody says land use and other human activities may be affecting vegetation along the Texas coast.  He says impacts of human activity may cause less absorption of carbon in vegetation, which plays an important role in balancing climate along the Texas coast.

Dr. Anna Armitage, a Texas A&M Galveston associate professor of marine biology, is investigating carbon absorption in vegetation.

“Our research indicates that salt marshes are being replaced by mangroves in some areas on the Texas coast, and that many other salt marshes have been lost due to sea level rise,” Armitage said. “Over the last 20 years, nearly a quarter of all salt marshes in Texas have been lost, which may have a negative impact on the absorption of carbon by plants.”

While Texas A&M researchers caution about the effects of urban sprawl on the natural environment, they also reveal that people who live near the 100-year flood plain may have false perceptions about how safe they are. 

“Recent evidence suggests that the 100-year flood plain is neither accurate, nor sufficient in helping mitigate the adverse impacts of floods,” Brody said.

Beyond showing false perceptions about safety in flood plains and providing evidence of a shrinking capacity for ecosystems in balancing climate change, the researchers have examined and recommended coastal strategies for mass transit.

Jonathan Brooks, associate transportation researcher for the Texas A&M Transportation Institute said strategic planning can limit the negative impact of disasters and gradual climate change.

For example, Island Transit in Galveston provides alternate routes to escape high water and offers its customers maps with those routes. Houston METRO has developed contracts for tree removal on bus routes as well as food contracts for the transit staff to keep operations going during disasters. Long-term planning includes putting maintenance facilities in safe places or building them to better withstand disasters.

Beyond discoveries and recommendations about coastal communities’ readiness to confront natural disasters, the research team is collaborating with the most successful experts in the world in developing dikes to protect their cities.

Based on existing technologies and best practices from the Dutch, Dr. Bill Merrell, of Texas A&M Galveston conceived the Ike Dike coastal barrier that, when completed,  is intended to protect the Houston-Galveston region including Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel from hurricane storm surge.

Brody says that these solutions and future projects can provide insights for decision makers on how to facilitate the development of more resilient coastal communities over the long term. 

Media contact: Cathy Cashio Bertrand, cashioc@tamug.edu, (409) 740-4830, www.tamug.edu