Gulf Coast Ports Reopen After Tropical Storm Beta

A weakening Tropical Storm Beta hovers over the central Texas coast, September 22 (NASA)

Published Sep 22, 2020 12:33 PM by The Maritime Executive

Tropical Storm Beta has weakened into a tropical depression over the Texas coast and is drifting slowly eastwards towards Louisiana - but the effects on the region's ports are not yet over. 

On Tuesday, the vital Houston Ship Channel - the artery to 40 percent of the world's petchem industry - was still shut south of the Lynchburg Ferry crossing by order of the Captain of the Port. The upper reaches of the Channel had reopened, but the lower channel closure restricted entry and exit. 

The closure affected the waterways to and from the giant Baytown refinery, the Barbours Cut Container Terminal and the Bayport Container Terminal.

In addition, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway was closed between Matagorda and High Island, affecting barge traffic well to the east and the west of Galveston Bay. 

The restrictions lifted fully on Wednesday morning, and the Houston Ship Channel and Intracoastal Waterway are open for all traffic.

Galveston, Freeport, Lake Charles, Beamont, Orange, Sabine and Port Arthur have also reopened and are fully back in operation. 

Renewed calls for action on "Ike Dike"

Houston has debated the costs and benefits of building a coastal storm defense system for more than a decade, and the passage of Tropical Storm Beta - though relatively uneventful - has renewed the discussion. A major hurricane-driven storm surge event would likely drive floodwaters north through Galveston Bay, potentially inundating petchem plants and oil refineries in low-lying areas. The result would be an environmental disaster. 

"We have literally thousands of storage tanks along the ship channel and they are not designed to be surrounded by water," said Rice University researcher Jim Blackburn, speaking to local media. 

Among other proposals to protect the Houston-Galveston area from storm surge, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is contemplating a set of storm gates at the channel entrance - closeable in an emergency, and wide enough to permit supertankers to pass when open. The gates would be supplemented by enhancing natural fortifications like dunes along the bay's barrier island chain. 

After a near miss with Hurricane Laura and a soft pass from Tropical Storm Beta, Houston's leaders are looking more closely at storm protection systems.

"I don't know how many chances we are going to have," said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, speaking to the Star Tribune. "Whatever it may be that can mitigate storm surge, then that's what I am in favor of. What I do know is we can't keep just talking about it."a