Harnessing nature to reduce Gulf Coast flood and chemical exposure risk

The mix of climate-induced flood risks and industrial facilities along the Gulf Coast could spell disaster.

This project aims to reduce these risks for people and the environment.

Flooding from hurricanes, heavy rainfall and sea level rise threaten Gulf Coast communities in more ways than one. Not only are homes and businesses subject to flood waters, but the region’s heavy industrial footprint of petrochemical facilities poses additional risks to human health and the environment.

Many of these facilities are in areas that are also vulnerable to flooding, which could result in chemical spills and releases harmful to the health of people living nearby, as well as fish and wildlife.

The National Academy of Sciences has funded a project that will identify solutions that can address these risks before the next disaster. The project team will first identify what facilities around Galveston Bay, Texas, are most vulnerable to flood-related spills and releases, and then outline specific nature-based solutions, such as oyster reefs and earthen terraces, that can reduce the threat of flooding and limit the risk of harmful chemical spills and releases.

What’s at stake to communities, fragile ecosystems and livelihoods

The Gulf Coast is one of the most vulnerable U.S. regions to the impacts of climate change, particularly hurricanes increasing in intensity, extreme rainfall and sea level rise. At the same time, the Gulf Coast has a massive industrial footprint of petrochemical facilities directly in the path of these flood threats.

In recent years, flooding and flood-related damages have triggered the release of petroleum products and chemical contaminants into air, waterways and surrounding neighborhoods.

In Texas, Hurricane Harvey unleashed massive rainfall totals and storm surge that caused the release of 10 million pounds of harmful chemicals. In neighboring Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina caused 540 individual spills, releasing 190,000 barrels of oil across Louisiana’s coast. 2020 produced the most active hurricane season on record, with 10 storms undergoing rapid intensification, including Hurricane Laura that led to 31 reports of oil and chemical spills to the Environmental Protection Agency.

These public health impacts disproportionately fall on low-wealth communities and communities of color, where industrial infrastructure is often concentrated. These chemical releases also damage sensitive ecosystems, critical fish and wildlife habitat, and threaten jobs and economic security, particularly for fishing fleets and related industries.

Climate change and extreme weather are increasing the risk of flood-induced chemical spills, particularly across the Gulf Coast.

This vulnerability poses serious health risks to nearby residents and threatens vulnerable ecosystems.

We must act now to identify what facilities are most at risk of flooding and work to reduce those risks before the next storm.

EDF scientist Elena Craft
Elena Craft, Senior Director, EDF Climate and Health

Collaboration will address compounding threats to public health and ecosystems

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) along with experts from Texas A&M University and the Galveston Bay Foundation are undertaking a project, funded by the National Academy of Sciences, to identify solutions that can mitigate these risks before the next flood.

The project will reveal what facilities pose the greatest risk of flood-related chemical releases and recommend specific natural and nature-based solutions to reduce these risks.

  • Environmental Defense Fund Logo

    EDF brings a team of scientists and policy experts with decades of experience in environmental toxins and public health, water quality science, natural infrastructure, coastal resilience, hurricane and flood risk reduction, fisheries, and more.

  • Galveston Bay Logo

    Galveston Bay Foundation is a bay-side nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve and enhance Galveston Bay as a healthy and productive place for generations to come. With programs in advocacy, conservation, education and research, the foundation brings a team of engagement experts with connections to the environmental community in the Houston-Galveston Area.

  • texas AM University

    Texas A&M University brings a team of researchers with substantial cross-disciplinary experience from their College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, College of Engineering, School of Public Health and College of Architecture.

How we are working

To meet our objectives, our team of scientists, researchers, community outreach experts and others will undertake five key aims:

  • Understand impacts to date: Understand the impact of historical and recent releases of pollutants in in marine organisms by conducting sampling of recreational fish species.
  • Map facilities at risk: Identify industrial facilities to target based on the presence and potential hazard of chemical contaminants.
  • Plan for future scenarios: Use computer modeling to understand current and future risk of flooding, chemical releases and impacts to nearby communities and ecosystems.
  • Develop solutions: Based on the first three aims, develop natural and nature-based features that can mitigate impacts from flood-induced chemical releases to protect the health of people, ecosystems and the economy.
  • Public and stakeholder engagement: Working with community and industry stakeholders, create a feasibility analysis and design criteria for facilities to build these solutions.
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This project will focus on Galveston Bay in terms of on-the-ground research and mapping of facilities. However, our findings and recommendations are applicable across the wider Gulf Coast, particularly in neighboring Louisiana, where heavy industrial footprints in coastal areas and floodplains combined with increasing climate-induced flood risk pose grave dangers to communities and ecosystems.

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How you can get involved

We are seeking input from community members and stakeholders to guide our work and the development of recommendations for this project.

We are conducting stakeholder outreach meetings with representatives from state and federal agencies, private corporations and nonprofit groups who are interested in promoting resilient facility management to protect sensitive ecosystems and vulnerable communities. This participation is essential to the development of successful and effective adoption of nature-based solutions.

If you have questions, feedback or would like to learn more and get involved, please complete our form and a member of our project team will be in touch with a response.

Our experts

Across EDF, Texas A&M University and Galveston Bay Foundation, this project team includes researchers with a wealth of cross-disciplinary knowledge and expertise including:

  • Elena Craft, Ph.D., Senior Director Climate and Health, EDF
  • Sepp Haukebo, Manager, Recreational Fishing Solutions, EDF
  • Cloelle Danforth, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, EDF
  • Devyani Kar, Ph.D. Senior Manager and Scientist, Coastal Resilience, EDF
  • Lauren Padilla, Ph.D., VoLo Data Scientist, EDF
  • Scott Jones, Government and Regulatory Affairs Manager, GBF
  • Charlotte Cisneros, Community Programs Manager, GBF
  • Thomas McDonald, Ph.D., Professor, School of Public Health, TAMU
  • Weihsueh Chiu, Ph.D., Professor, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, TAMU
  • James Kaihatu, Ph.D., Professor, College of Engineering, TAMU
  • Galen Newman, Ph.D., Associate Professor, College of Architecture, TAMU
  • Garret Sansom, Ph.D., Associate Professor, School of Public Health, TAMU
  • Shannon Cunniff, Coastal Resilience Expert, Consultant


What are natural and nature-based features or ‘natural infrastructure’?

The term “natural infrastructure” refers to naturally occurring landscape features and/or nature-based solutions that promote, use, restore or emulate natural ecological processes.

On our coasts, healthy natural and nature-based features — such as mangrove forests, living shorelines, restored wetlands, reefs and barrier islands — can absorb the shock of storm surge and better protect communities from sea level rise.

Policymakers and planners can use natural infrastructure to lessen the impacts of extreme weather, such as drought or flooding, while providing other ecological and human benefits.

More on natural infrastructure »