Where is Roy Miller when we need him?
-Grady Price Blount
Roy Miller was elected mayor of Corpus Christi in 1913. Known as a "boy wonder", this former newspaper reporter created an administration, which paved muddy streets, organized our first professional fire department, laid sewer lines, and installed the municipal water system. His term ended in the same year as the devastating 1919 storm. But his public service went on for decades.
In 1938 he said that he believed “in all necessary legislation and regulation to protect the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich, the owner of property against those who would destroy the ownership of property; in short, equality of opportunity for every citizen”. By today’s standards, he would be called a liberal, left-wing environmentalist wacko. This was the same man who went on to play a leading role in the dredging of the Ship Channel, the subsequent creation of the Port of Corpus Christi, the construction of the bayfront seawall, and the creation of both the Naval Air Station and the Intercoastal Waterway. He made such an impact on our town that Corpus Christi High School was renamed in his honor.
We sure could use Roy Miller now. Packery Channel is the kind of question he would have loved because it’s not just a political question; it’s a symbol for larger issues, both environmental and economic. It’s about what kind of town Corpus Christi is going to be. In Roy Miller’s day, being a sleepy fishing hamlet wasn’t good enough. He changed the status quo, and he did in a way that we benefit from to this very day.
No one person or group owns the environment of Corpus Christi or the economy that depends on that environment. Everyone with a stake in our town should participate – including future generations who will live with the decisions we make today. Yes, I'm certain Roy Miller would have loved this one.
By itself, reopening Packery Channel, the historic Corpus Christi Pass, will neither wreck the environment, nor create a 21st Century economic miracle. Like many things, it is a symbol of something greater. That greater issue, which seems to have been lost, is about the best way to responsibly utilize Corpus Christi’s greatest natural asset, our waterways and coastal environments. The question then, is not about digging a channel. It is about developing resources wisely.
In the case of barrier island resources like Padre Island, we are dealing with a young landscape. When the Egyptians began building pyramids, Padre Island did not yet exist. But the island we see today is not only young, it is also on the move - migrating toward the mainland. With every major storm event, sand is picked up from the front side of the island and dumped onto the backside in a V-shaped structure called a hurricane washover fan. These masses of sand are picked up and moved by a phenomena called storm surge.
Storm surge is a temporary rise in sea level which accompanies a hurricane. In a manner directly analogous to sucking on a straw, lower atmospheric pressure inside a tropical storm causes the surface of the ocean to rise by as much as 10 to 20 feet. Do not confuse a 10-foot storm surge with a 10-foot wave. A big wave will still break on the beach, but a storm surge actually raises sea level and can flood areas completely. When parts of the island flood in a storm surge, sand is picked up, moved landward, and then deposited in the Laguna Madre side when the waters recede.
Over time, the island migrates shoreward. This movement is documented in Figure 1 accompanying this article. The red line marks the land/water boundaries mapped in 1859 when the Corpus Christi Ship Channel Company surveyed the area that we call Packery Channel (they called it Corpus Christi Pass then). This boundary was then superposed on a 1990 satellite image of the same area. The result is unmistakable. The entire island moved about 3/4 of a mile westward in a 130 year time period. A similar migration rate was observed in a U.S. Geological Survey study at Bird Island.
The natural process of barrier island migration has been happening for thousands of years. The sandy peninsulas of Flour Bluff and Ingleside/Rockport are remnants of a previous barrier island from the last interglacial stage.
The migration documented here is a direct result of sand movement from hurricane washovers. Every natural pass, Aransas, Newport, and Packery has washover fans behind it. Dozens of new washovers were created by Hurricane Brett in 1999. Washover fans are the smoking guns of evidence that this island is on the move. Even the Padre Isles subdivision is built on a large washover fan; a fan related to historic washovers at, you guessed it, Packery Channel.
It should not be a surprise that barrier islands are classified as environmental hazard zones. People live there at their own peril; for most, it is a gamble they are willing to take. After all, other areas have their own local hazards (earthquakes on the West Coast, floods on the Mississippi, and volcanoes in Hawaii and the Northwest).
But in every environment there are better and worse places to develop; and better and worse ways to do your building. Locating a condo on a cliff above the San Andreas fault is not the most conservative plan. Likewise, here in South Texas, building on the ground at the site of numerous historic hurricane washover fans (Packery Channel) must be on the short list of "worst" places. This is not a "scare tactic", it is just reality.
When voters turned down a county initiative on Packery in 1999, the playing field shifted to Washington. Like I said at the outset, Roy Miller would have loved this. But I'm not sure he would approve of the twin doublespeak concepts used to justify federal funding. The first is that reopening Corpus Christi Pass will restore a natural ecosystem. The second concept is that hurricane protection will be enhanced by dumping sand in front of the seawall adjacent to Packery.
Ecosystem restoration sounds like a great idea, but I doubt if anyone seriously expects to accomplish this. Actually restoring the ecosystem in the area would also require the removal of highways, roads, hotels, businesses and homes. The only natural ecosystems left around Packery today are the human ones. Still, ecosystem restoration, does have a nice ring to it…
The “hurricane protection” aspect of the project is the most vexing. It states that more sand is needed because the beach in front of the seawall has eroded. Putting sand back in place, the argument goes, will protect the seawall. But the reason for the erosion in the first place is the seawall itself. When storm waves strike the seawall, the energy has nowhere to dissipate except down and that means eroding the beach. A better solution to the beach erosion problem would be to simply remove the seawall.
By this time, you would be excused if you thought I was opposed to the Packery Channel Project. But contrary to allegations, I am not. Indeed, I am on record as saying that the development of Padre Island is inevitable. Some sort of Gulf access is also likely a fait accompli.
In the next decade or so, tens of millions of baby boomers will retire. This is, by the way, the source for the coming ecotourism boom. For most of them, North Dakota will not be their first choice for a new home. As hosts for these future Corpus Christians (and fellow taxpayers), it can be argued that we should make efforts now to ensure the development of their soon-to-be destination, Padre Island, is done right. That means proper planning with building codes and rational architectural styles for the barrier island environment.
OK, then what would it take to do it right? You can see it on the campus of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. The island campus was almost wiped out by Hurricane Celia in 1970. This destruction was still fresh when the state took over and began rebuilding. Structures like Corpus Christi Hall were the result. Built like bunkers, they sported thick walls and few windows. Massive shutters were built in.
Is it overbuilt? I don't think so. When a storm is coming, this is precisely the kind of building you want to be in. Indeed, it is structures like these (and stilt houses) which are most in harmony with the reality of the Texas coast.
So we have an island resource which is beautiful, mobile, and occasionally dangerous. Knowing this, we have two options with two decidedly different futures.
The first is the option of the status quo. Deny reality and continue on the current path. Encourage more single story slab homes and use public funds to encourage even more people, sometimes naïve out-of-town people to move to the island. Build more structures right on the beach.
When these structures are wiped out in the next moderate storm, and the debris has floated into Corpus Christi Bay, they can collect their insurance checks and build again. Of course that will make insurance rates go up for the entire city, not just those living on the island, but that's another story. And, of course, this option requires us to put thousands of additional people in harm's way by encouraging development in an environmental hazard zone without a reasonable evacuation route. To get started on this option, we have to dig first and plan later.
The second option is to recognize that we are encouraging development in a rapidly changing, sometimes hazardous, and always beautiful location. If we observe this simple fact, we will build structures with some chance of surviving a moderate storm surge. We will also ensure that people moving into this area have an adequate means of evacuation when storms threaten. In addition we will build our structures well back from the beach, behind the dune line, and then allow nature to do it's thing - building beaches, sculpting dunes, that sort of thing. And if, in this context, we reopen Corpus Christi Pass, we will provide for routine dredging by raising the Packery Bridge so that dredging barges can move freely from the Laguna side.
Pursuing this second option will cost more up front but pay off in the long run. Stricter building codes and the necessity of building homes and businesses on stilts will increase construction costs. But, incidentally, that means more jobs locally. In addition, we would have to pursue the responsible act of raising the causeway prior to encouraging further development. This would mean waiting a few years for financing, planning, and construction. It might even take 10 years to do this right. But how long has it taken us to build the Port of Corpus Christi, arguably one of the cleanest in the world? How about the bayfront which is still a work of art in progress?
Critics will say that you have to start somewhere. If we tie Packery to all these other projects, we'll never get anywhere. That's fine if you have low expectations. I don't, and I submit that the troops march better and morale is higher when we know where we are going and why. Neither of these questions has been addressed, much less answered in the current debate.
It sure seems like Roy Miller could get us through the Packery question successfully. He had a vision of Corpus Christi's future that transformed us from a fishing village and minor resort into a diversified modern city. Some people still believe in that vision; that we can do the planning, the financing, and the building to make our barrier island resources world-class resorts. If anything, I would fault the pro-Packery forces for having too small a vision. If you're going to do something - Do it right or don’t do it at all.
In the same breath, the anti-Packery forces must be faulted for not speaking out clearly on their proposed alternatives. Again, the answer is do it right, or don’t do it at all.
I don't think it's too late. Both sides of the Packery issue want a better local economy with more skilled labor, an up-to-date infrastructure, an equitable tax load, and a robust environment. By focusing on the areas of agreement, we can talk about Packery as a single part of a much bigger picture, which includes raising the causeway, increasing the clearance of the Packery bridge, removing the seawall, and creating a secure island culture that will bring our town onto the world stage. Roy Miller's spirit may be gone forever. If so, we can just dig it. Or it may live on within us, in which case we must roll up our sleeves and do it right. That is what the real question of Packery is all about.
Now then, let’s do this job and then get started on the bridge tunnel from Ennis Joslin Road to Ingleside…
-First published in The Observer, March 2001