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Study: Texas coastal barrier would prevent major economic losses

May 23, 2019

Housing sales would drop, gasoline prices would increase and Texas would lose hundreds of billions of dollars in economic output if a major storm struck an unprotected coastline, according to a new study.

The joint study by Texas A&M University at Galveston and the Texas General Land Office assesses the storm surge impacts on the three counties along Galveston Bay — Galveston, Harris, and Chambers — and explores how flooding from a severe storm would impact different sectors of the local and national economies.

The study finds that a 500-year storm would result in an 8 percent decrease in Gross State Product by 2066, an $853 billion loss. (A 500-year flood has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a given year. Hurricane Harvey was the third such event in the Houston area in three years.)

With a coastal barrier in place, the study found, economic losses would be significantly less harmful. Gross State Product would still decline after a 500-year storm, but only by 2 percent. Housing sales would decrease by 2 percent, while petroleum and chemical output would decline by 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

“This is the first time that people have looked at indirect damages and how things occur other than the damage we think of from floods,” said Wes Highfield, an associate professor at Texas A&M University at Galveston and an investigator on the study. “This is another data point that says, ‘Hey this could be a really important piece of mitigation.’ It creates a richer picture.”

The economic outlook for an unprotected Houston-Galveston region ravaged by a storm surge is bleak, the report shows.

Housing sales would decline by nearly 8 percent, a $39.5 billion loss. Revenues in the petrochemical sector would decline by 19 percent, a $175.4 billion loss, while prices on petroleum products would increase by 13 percent.

Nationally, following an unprotected, 500-year surge event in Galveston Bay, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product would be 1.1 percent lower by the end of the 50-year period, an estimated $863 billion dollar economic decline.

“This study clearly demonstrates that, without any new protections in place, future storm surges could have substantial and lingering impacts on Texas’ economy and send lasting ripples through other economic sectors nationwide,” said George P. Bush, the Texas land commissioner, in a statement.

The study was conducted prior to the Army Corps of Engineers’ selection in October of a barrier proposal calling for 71 miles of dunes, gates, levees, and wildlife restoration beginning at High Island and running the length of Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston. The barrier models used in the study are roughly 17 feet high and include protection of San Luis Pass, which the current proposal does not.

With a barrier in place, the study shows that the decline in national GDP would be limited to .28 percent. Estimated residential losses in the Galveston Bay region are also four times lower with a coastal barrier in place

A barrier would have the most pronounced impact on coastal flood insurance premiums. The analysis indicates that $8 billion of National Flood Insurance Program insurance coverage would have reduced surge risk with a coastal spine. Over 31,000, or 10 percent, of all National Flood Insurance Program policies in Harris and Galveston Counties would experience a reduction in 100-year storm surge cost with a coastal barrier in place.

Authors of the study also conducted a survey to assess public perception of a coastal barrier. The sample of 2,300 residents of Chambers, Galveston, and Harris Counties was conducted in 2018, months prior to the Army Corps’ selection of a coastal barrier proposal.

The survey found that 73 percent of respondents supported the construction of a coastal spine, while 55 percent believed the government and port industries should share the cost of building such a system. Two-thirds of respondents also supported some type of public tax, including a sales or hotel tax, to raise revenue to construct the coastal barrier.

nick.powell@chron.com

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