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The Shell Center for Sustainability's mission is to foster an interdisciplinary program of research, outreach, and education to address actions that can be taken to ensure the sustainable development of communities' living standards, interpreted broadly, to encompass all factors affecting the overall quality of life.


Managing Development On Texas Coast In The Face Of Hurricanes

By: Carrie Feibel, October 29th, 2014 05:30 PM

It might sound completely obvious to say that the Texas coast is vulnerable to damage from hurricanes. But how vulnerable? And what can be done to protect the beaches, the bridges and the oil tanks? A conference at Rice University’s Shell Center for Sustainability explored the latest research on what to expect when the next big storm hits.

The Shell Center for Sustainability is a sort of think tank on the Rice campus. With funding from Shell, it brings together scholars from different disciplines to analyze the future of the Gulf Coast.

 For example, an economist at the conference talked about the problem of getting politicians to actually listen to scientists. Jamie Padgett, a Rice engineering professor, spoke about what really happens when hurricane floodwaters crash into an above-ground storage tank.

“The tanks may literally just uplift and float away or they may literally crush under the external forces of the storm surge,” Padgett said.

Padgett explained that during Hurricane Katrina more than eight million gallons of crude oil and other petrochemicals spilled out of damaged tanks. She said tank designers might start designing stronger tanks, or attaching them more securely to the ground.

Padgett also analyzes coastal bridges. Storm surges from hurricanes often cause visible damage to bridges, lifting up the road decks and throwing them into the water. But Padgett creates models to try to predict invisible damage too.

“The other failure modes that perhaps aren’t as visually apparent: we have scour, that could be loss of soil and support either at the approach or the foundations, underwater in some cases,” Padgett said. “We have impact damage, this is from loose barges, oil rigs, debris [crashing into the bridge].”

The Rice scholars are creating maps of future storm pathways and also trying to put a more accurate dollar figure on storm damage. By doing all this, they hope to influence preparation for the next big storms.

Those storms are coming, said John Anderson, an oceanographer and the academic director of the Shell Center for Sustainability. He said there’s no scientific doubt about it.

“We are vulnerable, we need to know that,” Anderson said. “We can’t stop the rate of sea level rise, it’s un-reversible at this point. The science shows that, there’s no question about that science. We are seeing accelerated sea level rise, we are seeing extended droughts, we’re seeing things that we need to learn to deal with and accept.”


Anderson said the Rice scholarship should be part of state and national policy discussions on what to do — whether that’s building a flood gate to protect the Houston Ship Channel or changing the location of roads and tank farms.