Galveston poised to defy geologists

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Leaders of this fast-eroding barrier island -- the scene of the deadliest hurricane in American history -- are about to approve nearly 4,000 new homes and two midrise hotels despite geologists’ warnings that the massive development would sever a ridge that serves as the island’s natural storm shield.

Galveston officials and the developer maintain that the plans are sound for the largest development in city history, and that geologists are placing too much significance on the ridge in question -- if it exists at all.

Critics of the plans say that Galveston’s officials are ignoring the lessons of science and history in their pursuit of new tax money -- and that in considering the building plan, the officials have ignored the very geological map the city commissioned to guide development on the island.

The three geologists who conducted the study cautioned against building along beaches that are likely to be erased by erosion within 20 years. They warned that artificial lakes and boat channels could help surging waters pierce the island during a major hurricane, possibly even splitting it in two.

And above all, they recommended that the city preserve a low-lying ridge hundreds of feet inland, saying that although the rise may look meaningless to untrained eyes, it has helped the island withstand centuries of storms.

City officials “are choosing not to see anything that gets in the way of their precious tax dollars,” said study co-author Tim Dellapenna, an assistant professor of marine geology at Texas A&M University. “But believe me, there is a protective ridge on Galveston Island, and this development would cut right through it.”

The master-planned community, including a marina and possibly a golf course, would span more than 1,000 acres from the Gulf of Mexico shoreline to the backside overlooking Galveston Bay.

It would urbanize a large swath of the island’s sparsely developed center and would lie outside a concrete seawall that protects the older section of the city from storm surges -- a barrier built because of a deadly lesson in 1900.

About 8,000 people died then when a hurricane-fueled wall of water washed over Galveston, destroying what was Texas’ largest city and one of the leading mercantile centers in the South. The Great Storm, as it is known, remains the worst natural disaster in national history in terms of lives lost.

Determined to overcome nature, Galveston’s surviving residents embarked on an extraordinary campaign to rebuild. They used tons of dredged sand to raise the entire city’s elevation and erected the 17-foot seawall, which extends along the southeastern shoreline for 10 miles.

Galveston never regained its prominence, ceding its big-port stature to Houston. But it survived to become an affordable beach destination for thousands across Texas and the Midwest -- and in recent years, a hot spot for well-heeled visitors.

The island’s West End is in the midst of a development boom. Palatial weekend homes on stilts sell for as much as $2 million and are fast replacing the modest shacks of old. In the last year, property values have risen 24%.

Galveston leaders, who have been struggling for years to revitalize the island’s decaying older side, are quickly approving the new developments -- too quickly, according to those who say the barrier island’s fragility has seemingly been forgotten.

Scientists estimate that Galveston is moving about a quarter-inch closer to the water every year because of rising sea levels and a slow sinking of the surface caused by oil extraction. The West End, unprotected by the seawall and just a few feet above sea level, is especially vulnerable.

“This is one of the most rapidly eroding portions of the U.S. coast,” Dellapenna said this month as he stood at the west end of the seawall.

Only decades ago, 100 yards of beach lay between the seawall and the water here, he said.

Now waves splash the base of the wall.

A road along the top of the wall used to continue down the coast past the end of the wall. But the coast eroded so much that the road had to be rerouted inland.

Dellapenna stressed that he did not oppose new development and understood the yearning for a piece of paradise.

But he said building plans should be guided by common sense -- and during lunch at a hamburger stand along the coast, he shared photographs that he said demonstrated a lack of that virtue.

The images were scientists’ projections of how the Galveston coastline will retreat over the next 60 years.

Rows of beachfront houses were sitting in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Some of these houses won’t outlive a 30-year mortgage,” he said.

During recent public hearings on the new development, called Preserve at West Beach, city planners did not share copies of the hazard maps the geologists had been hired to prepare. But a skeptical planning commissioner superimposed the blueprints with the map on her own. The hotels were in the areas designated at highest risk.

“You would think that we would know better,” said the commissioner, Chula Sanchez. “I expected the city to be a little bit more enlightened than this. We have an eroding economy and an eroding beach, and right now [city officials] seem more concerned about the tax base. I really don’t think they realize the power of nature.”

Most of Galveston’s planning commissioners signed off on the project last week. The City Council is expected to approve it later this year.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas and City Manager Steve LeBlanc did not respond to requests for comment.

Darren Sloniger, managing director of the development company -- Marquette Land Investments, based in the Chicago area -- said that he had underestimated the challenges of building in Galveston. But he said he was working with engineers experienced with barrier islands and would do whatever was needed to ensure Galveston was safe.

“If there is a legitimate protective ridge,” Sloniger said, “we are committed to preserving it.”