Will Galveston's Seawall Protect the City from Rita?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," September 21, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: All right, Jane. Thank you very much.

Galveston built a huge 10-mile sea wall after the hurricane of 1900. It’s going to need it, as you can see Rita is closing in on Galveston. The question is, will that sea wall protect the city from Hurricane Rita (search)?

I’m joined now by Professor Robert Bea, a civil engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

So, Professor, how good is this sea wall?

ROBERT BEA, CIVIL ENGINEERING PROFESSOR: Well, it’s proven itself prior to this storm. After the big storm of 1900 that unfortunately killed 8,000 people, our biggest disaster up to the current time, we’ve had, for example, Hurricane Carla (search) that has taken almost the same track that we now see Rita taking.

In fact I was in Galveston following Hurricane Carla’s attack on the defenses there, and Galveston did extremely well. So at least based on what we see happening now, I would predict the same thing.

GIBSON: You spent some time working around there. You’re intimately familiar with this. If the seawall is so good, why is everybody running out of Galveston?

BEA: Well, it’s the water that overtops the seawall that does the flooding. Also the seawall is a defense against the seaward side. There’s an exposed backside to Galveston Island, and if we get a big surge in there, then that can result in flooding. And hence, it’s best to have the people out of there.

I used to have a summer place on Padre Island (search). I can tell you I would be gone by now.

GIBSON: Would Padre Island or any of those barrier islands slow this thing down? Or are they just going to get crushed like a beer can?

BEA: Well, it’s not so much crushing, but up under this cyclone, if you will, and that’s what it is, a large-scale cyclone, it’s a large bulk of water, and that’s the hurricane surge. And that, of course, attacks the island first from the Gulf of Mexico side, but then is able to sweep around the backsides of these islands.

And, hence, you get water from all directions. On the seaward side, of course, you have the intense wind. Then the islands and that seaward set of walls that the Army Corps of Engineers (search) put in after the 1900 storm, and they become effective in knocking that down.

GIBSON: Professor, you also know something about the energy infrastructure. I mean, this is where we get all of our energy. How is that stuff when it comes to a big storm like this?

BEA: Well, again, history tells us, by and large, it is extremely good.

Now I would comment that Tuesday I was contacted by some of my industry friends, and they were evacuating the storm very early yesterday. And they’re located off-shore on, by and large, steel islands that are designed for storms far in excess of this, by the way. But yet they were evacuating.

And Wednesday the path in front of Rita has been totally evacuated, but yet we’re still struggling to evacuate the people on Galveston Island. You might start to question what’s going on.

GIBSON: Yes, all right, Professor Robert Bea, civil engineering professor, the University of California Berkeley. A lot of personal experience in this area. Professor, thanks.

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