Houston Matters

Houston Ship Channel And Galveston Bay Digging Out After Harvey

Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic damage in Houston, but the historic deluge also brought calamity to the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay.

Francisco Vasquez at work on the Prestige Oysters boat The Diplomat. (Photo: Scott Dalton/for NPR)

Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic damage in Houston, but the historic deluge also brought calamity to the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay. The aftermath of the storm threatens two vital industries — one mammoth and ironclad, the other small and slimy: shipping and oysters.

Fire Boat One cruises down the Houston Ship Channel — one of the hardest working waterways in America.

On either side of the channel are grain silos, warehouses and storage tanks for products ranging from petroleum to molasses. Giant container ships refuel for their voyages back across the Atlantic Ocean. Tugboats are nudging rusty barges in every direction.

Houstonians were relieved when floodwaters drained from the city’s bayous into the ship channel, then the bay, and finally into the Gulf. But that was just the beginning of Vincent’s troubles.

“This storm event was absolutely extraordinary,” he says, riding on the bow of the fire boat. “We estimate millions of tons of sediment were carried into the ship channel, all of which need to be removed over time in order to enable safe navigation of our ships.”

A boat dredges the ship channel on the Port of Houston. Due to the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey, massive amounts of dredging are needed to get the ship channel back to a normal operating state. (Photo: Scott Dalton/for NPR)

The Port of Houston ranks as the busiest port in the nation, and first in foreign waterborne tonnage. It serves the largest petrochemical complex in America.

But these shoals created by Harvey mean that cargo-laden ships run the risk of running aground because they sit so low in the water.

“And we have many, many ships that might have to plan to bring less cargo and over time bring more ships to Houston simply because we’re draft restricted. And that’s inefficient, and ultimately it’s going to cost consumers money,” Vincent says.

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