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Energy & Environment

Disaster Responders Say Ike Taught Them Debris Is Your Enemy

Hurricane Ike hit us here on the Texas coast eight years ago next week. The disaster taught emergency agencies what it takes to clean-up and restore the Houston region. News 88.7 went with them for an aerial tour.



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US Army helicopter over Bolivar Peninsula

It's not long after sunrise at Sholes Airport on Galveston Island. Four Black Hawk helicopters from Fort Hood are being loaded-up with journalists and with officers from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers as well as officials from FEMA, the federal disaster agency.

"We're the busiest region in the nation and I think that's what makes us better is to take all those lessons learned from all those different events. We have disasters every year, we face disasters every year," says Laverm Young, FEMA's deputy director for Region 6 that includes Texas and its four neighboring states.

New homes on Bolivar Peninsula

The lessons learned from Hurricane Ike eight years ago were the point of an aerial tour and a meeting that officials would attend the next day.

The tour started by flying about a mile to where Ike damaged the Galveston Island Seawall, resulting in the first major repair to it in over a century. It then headed across Bolivar Peninsula where, if you didn't know better, you might find it hard to imagine that Ike killed 15 people here and destroyed hundreds of homes. Now, there are hundreds of new homes built along the beach.

We cross over the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the canal that Ike clogged with debris but which on this day had a line of barges plying its waters.

We then fly northwest, skirting downtown Houston until we're on the far west side. Below us are the great, green expanses of the Barker and Addicks reservoirs. They're mostly dry now, just big forests, but in April during the Tax Day floods, they broke records, holding back more storm water than they ever had since being built just after World War II.

That flood and a couple other subsequent storms delayed by six months a $75 million project to replace the big gates on the Addicks and Barker dams.

Construction underway on $75 million project at Barker and Addicks Dams
Construction underway on $75 million project at Barker and Addicks Dams

Later after landing back at Sholes Airport, we talked with the U.S. Army Corps' of Engineers Col. Lars Zetterstrom who said the dams are just fine until the project is completed.

"We're very confident in the capability of both of those dam structures," Zetterstrom said.

But he says the Tax Day Flood actually inspired the Corps to come up with a twist to its annual "table top exercise" that he and other emergency responders would tackle the next day. The point of exercise is to simulate a coastal disaster on paper.

"Our division headquarters out of Dallas has designed what you consider an almost worst case scenario," Zetterstrom said. A scenario in which floods fill up Addicks and Barker reservoirs and then a hurricane hits. "How would that impact the federal government, specifically the Army Corps of Engineers response and recovery?"

What they learned from responding to Ike is that in the immediate aftermath of such a storm, one of the biggest challenges is debris. Tons of debris that piles up on roads and in waterways like the Intracoastal.

"We talked on our aircraft about the volume of debris that was in the particular waterway after Hurricane Ike and we responded...with response capability to clear those channels," said Brig. Gen. David Hill.

Barge on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway near Galveston

On land, the Army Corps says it helped remove some 100,000 cubic yards of rubble from major roads.

FEMA's Laverm Young says that's what they found helped allow Galveston to begin recovering: "That's one of the challenges we will always face ...being able to get those critical resources on and off the island, there's only so many ways to get on, so many ways to get off. "

It's one of many lessons learned from Ike that may help when the next storm hits the Texas Coast.