As Hurricane Ike careens toward Texas, we are reminded of a warning the White House silenced

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On March 12, 2008 the US government quietly released a report, Impacts of Climate Variability and Change on Transportation and Infrastructure—Gulf Coast Study.  The study, one of 21 being produced by the US Climate Change Science Program, was silenced by the Bush admninistration’s political apparatus, another victim of systematic suppression of climate science communication presumably meant to keep the American people in the dark about the ties between our heavy reliance on fossil fuels and climatic disruption, ranging from the mild to the severe.  On the day of the stealth release, reporters were kept from interviewing the lead author with the Department of Transportation, an expert on the vulnerability of transportation systems to severe weather and other risks.       

Post by Anne Polansky.

According to the Associated Press,

Forecasters expect the storm to make landfall this weekend somewhere between Corpus Christi and Houston, creating the potential for heavy punishment for Houston even if it’s not hit directly.  Some forecasts say Ike could strengthen to a fearsome Category 4 hurricane with winds of at least 131 mph over the Gulf of Mexico, and emergency officials warned it could drive a storm surge as high as 18 feet.

The same article quotes meteorologist and hurricane expert Jeff Masters:

If current projections of the storm’s path hold up, the area surrounding Houston — home to about 4 million people — would be lashed by the eastern or “dirty” side of the storm, said meteorologist Jeff Masters, co-founder of San Francisco-based Weather Underground. This stronger side of the storm often packs heavy rains, walloping storm surge and tornadoes.

“I expect a lot of damage in Houston from this storm,” said Masters, adding that Ike could cause a “huge storm surge” affecting at least 100 miles of the Texas coast.

 

Attention all media: 

Chapter 2 of the CCSP report (10 MB, .pdf), “Why Study the Gulf Coast?”—which had over a dozen authors in several agencies but was led by Virginia Burkett of the US Geological Survey, concludes:  (page 2-27)

The central Gulf Coast study area contains transportation infrastructure that is vital not just to the movement of passengers and goods within the study area but also to the national transportation network and economy. However, the geomorphology of the region makes it particularly sensitive to certain climate impacts. Due largely to its sedimentary history, the region is low-lying – much of it below 5 m – with little topographical relief. Much of the region experiences high rates of subsidence as these sediments naturally compact over time, while high rates of erosion mean that sections of coastline are literally washed away after tropical storms and hurricanes. As a result, the region is particularly vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise and storm activity.

The introduction to this chapter may provide additional insight into why the political appointees at the DOT were nervous about media attention:

The Phase I Study area includes 48 contiguous coastal counties in 4 States, running from
the Galveston Bay region in Texas to the Mobile Bay region in Alabama. This region is
home to almost 10 million people living in a range of urban and rural settings, contains
some of the Nation’s most critical transportation infrastructure, and is highly vulnerable to
sea level rise and storm impacts.

This area has little topographic relief but is heavily populated. Given its low elevation and
the regional climate, the area is particularly vulnerable to flooding and storm surges that
accompany hurricanes and tropical storms – almost half of the Nation’s repetitive flood
damage claims are paid to homeowners and businesses in this region. These effects may be
exacerbated by global sea level rise and local land subsidence.

In addition, the central Gulf Coast’s transportation modes are both unique and
economically significant. The study area contains transportation infrastructure that is vital
to the movement of passengers and a variety of goods domestically and internationally.
Ports and pipeline infrastructure represent perhaps the most conspicuous transport modes in
the region. Some of the Nation’s most important ports, such as the ports of Houston-
Galveston, South Louisiana, and New Orleans are found in the study area. The Port of
South Louisiana, for example, is a critical agricultural export center. Agricultural
producers in the Midwest depend on the continued operation of this port to ship their
products for international sale. Likewise, disruptions in the functioning of pipelines and
fuel production and shipping facilities in the study region have broad domestic and
international impacts. Roughly two-thirds of all U.S. oil imports are transported through
this region, and pipelines traversing the region transport over 90 percent of domestic Outer
Continental Shelf oil and gas.

The importance of these marine facilities and waterways to the study area, and to the
Nation as a whole, is difficult to overstate. These are vital National resources, providing
essential transportation and economic services. While some of these functions could be
considered “replaceable” by facilities and waterways elsewhere, many of them – by virtue
of geography, connections to particular industries and markets, historic investments, or
other factors – represent unique and largely irreplaceable assets.

In addition to ports and pipelines, the study region contains critical air, rail, highway, and
transit infrastructure. Passenger and freight mobility depend both on the functioning of
each mode and the connectivity of the modes in an integrated transport network. The
efficacy of evacuation during storms is an important determinant of the safety and well-being
of the region’s population. The region sits at the center of transcontinental trucking
and rail routes and contains one of only four major points in the United States where
railcars are exchanged between the dominant eastern and western railroads.

The region is experiencing a population shift from rural to urban and suburban areas.
Much of the population inhabiting the study area, as well as the transportation
infrastructure supporting them, reside in low-lying areas vulnerable to inundation and
flooding. In addition, parts of the population face challenges that may make it more
difficult for them to adapt to the conditions imposed by a changing climate, such as
poverty, lack of mobility, and isolation. Some of Louisiana’s rural counties and the urban
centers of New Orleans and Mobile County, AL, have particularly high proportions of
vulnerable citizens.

 

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