Mitigating Sea Level Rise in Galveston

By Special Contributor posted 09-09-2015 16:45

By Matt Pelz

Preservationists around the country are taking steps to document, protect, and mitigate the effects of climate change on cultural resources. In the summer issue of the Forum Journal, titled, “High Water and High Stakes: Cultural Resources and Climate Change,” contributors examine what changing weather patterns mean for cultural resources, what communities are doing to prepare, and how  rising sea levels are already affecting communities. The PLF blog will continue to cover these issues; this week Matt Pelz, director of the Center for Coastal Heritage at the Galveston Historical Foundation, writes about their work to find alternative strategies to mitigating sea level rise. Previous posts can be found here.

An early map of Galveston showing it's orientation to the mainland and attractive port | Credit:  Galveston Historical Foundation Preservation Resource Center
An early map of Galveston showing its orientation to the mainland and attractive port | Credit: Galveston Historical Foundation Preservation Resource Center

As a barrier island off the Texas Gulf Coast, Galveston is one of the most environmentally vulnerable heritage centers in the country. Prone to regular flooding, tropical weather, and sediment flow, the character of its landscape can change quickly. Because of this unpredictability, it can be a tricky place to live, despite its deserved reputation as a relaxation destination. Any Galvestonian can tell you their story about a car damaged by flooding, a home wrecked by a storm, or a family member displaced. Even while continuing to recover from 2008’s Hurricane Ike, we prepare for a future with storms intensified by rising seas and changing weather patterns.

Some have suggested that the area was never suited for development and that Galveston’s founders were misguided when they incorporated the city in 1839 to take advantage of its natural port. Our current situation is different from theirs: where they saw an island sparsely settled by various camps, we see an established community, home to 50,000 people with a rich, diverse heritage reflected in a huge concentration of nationally-significant buildings and sites.

The city’s two National Historic Landmark Districts, the East End and the Strand, are located on terrain that is only a few feet above sea level at its highest points. They were among the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Ike. Storm surge modeling completed by Texas A&M University at Galveston’s Texas Coastal Communities Atlas predicts that weaker storms could still inundate most of the districts with water. Sea level rise predictions from Climate Central say that by 2030, the odds of a 100-year storm hitting Galveston, which would certainly cause flooding in the Strand and East End districts, will increase by 20 percent.
House being elevated after relocation to 3101 Ave. Q in Galveston, TX; 2010. | Credit: Galveston Historical Foundation Preservation Resource Center
House being elevated after relocation in 2010 to 3101 Ave. Q in Galveston. | Credit: Galveston Historical Foundation Preservation Resource Center

Just to the west of the Strand District, Carver Park is another area that was hard hit by Hurricane Ike, and it is especially vulnerable to future flooding. At one time, the neighborhood had a large collection of historic architecture highlighted by small cottages built in the late 19th century for people working at the port and cotton facilities. The buildings have little protection from flooding. With each storm, the neighborhood loses parts of its architectural collection both from the immediate storm damage and the recovery programs that follow. Out of those that remain, a majority have low- to moderate-income owners, some of whom descend from the 19th century working-class people who built the houses.

Understanding the severity of the threat posed by sea level rise, it’s clear that there are cases where managed retreat, whereby the community de-incentivizes the redevelopment of highly vulnerable areas, is the best or perhaps the only available option. For some, it may seem like a simple and ideologically pure approach. But even its strongest proponents must recognize that its implementation in Carver Park and neighborhoods like it throughout the country that have strong cultural ties and limited financial resources is certainly complicated and perhaps not appropriate in every case.

Finding Alternative Strategies

 Behind the Seawall, the community raised the grade using sand dredged from the harbor. | Credit:  Galveston Historical Foundation Preservation Resource Center
Behind the seawall, the community raised the grade using sand dredged from the harbor. | Credit: Galveston Historical Foundation Preservation Resource Center
If we accept that retreat is not always the best option, we face the task of identifying alternative strategies for building and preserving more resilient communities. Fortunately for Galveston, the community has a long tradition of responding to environmental challenges. Through partnerships with the University of Texas-San Antonio College of Architecture and the University of Texas-Medical Branch Center in Environmental Toxicology, Galveston Historical Foundation is studying a number of responses to better determine their effectiveness and their applicability to our current situation. We call the project the Center for Coastal Heritage.

The most famous resilience strategy employed in Galveston is the grade-raising that followed the Great Storm of 1900, which remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The project included the construction of a 17-foot-high seawall along the southern edge of the island, infilling with dredged sand, and raising more than 2,100 buildings to the new grade level. The project proved its effectiveness in mitigating damages from later hurricanes, but some parts of the island and the Houston-Galveston area still remain vulnerable. After Hurricane Ike, researchers from Texas A&M University at Galveston and Rice University looked into ways to provide better protection from storm surge. One of their proposals involves extending the seawall. We are collaborating with these groups to better predict the impacts that an extended seawall would have on historic resources like those in the Strand District and Carver Park.

After the 1900 Storm, the community built the Seawall to protect the mitigate future storm damage. | Credit: Library of Congress via Galveston Historical Foundation Preservation Resource Center
After the 1900 storm, the community built the seawall to protect against future storm damage. | Credit: Library of Congress via Galveston Historical Foundation Preservation Resource Center
The grade-raising and proposed seawall expansion represent regional responses to environmental challenges, but property owners cannot always rely on policymakers to act. Galvestonians have always had a strong tradition of raising and relocating buildings. Projected sea level rise and changes in insurance regulations are now sparking an increased interest in building elevation as an adaptation strategy. This approach may be problematic for some preservationists who cite the importance of scale in defining the character of a neighborhood. Others have recognized the potential impact of a streetscape lined by raised houses on the pedestrian experience. We’re eager to explore new solutions, such as buoyant foundations, flood-proofing, first-floor abandonment, and well-designed house elevations, that may allow property owners to be proactive protecting their buildings and lowering their insurance premiums while still taking advantage of preservation incentives.

In partnership with the UTMB Center in Environmental Toxicology, we’re hosting the second annual Living on the Edge conference this October 22-23 to discuss building adaption strategies as well as new tools for understanding storm surges and other issues facing the coastal communities. This year, we’re emphasizing applicable solutions, and we hope to foster a strong discussion including preservationists, environmentalists, engineers, and public health professionals. It’s likely that no single approach will provide all of the answers, but by collaborating we can help provide individuals and communities with options for protecting their properties and heritage.

Matt Pelz is the director of the Center for Coastal Heritage, a project of Galveston Historical Foundation. He is a native of North Carolina.

Interested in taking immediate action on climate change and sea level rise? Sign the “Call to Action,” a proclamation to raise public awareness of the urgent and growing threat to cultural heritage from climate change.

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