In Part 1, I covered some of the advantages Starbase will have along with the things that need to be baked into the city’s operations and culture from the beginning. In this article, I’m going to get more specific on some of the risks the city will face and some ways they can organize it for long term success.
The Risks Starbase Will Need to Mitigate
The good news is that Cameron County, Texas has already studied much of this. Like nearly all counties in the U.S., the county has a small emergency management staff who look for ways to better prepare the county for emergencies, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management works with all of the counties as well as federal emergency management (FEMA and DHS). This makes the job at the city level a lot easier, but as I’ll get into later in the article, the city does still need at least one person working on making this happen.
The county identified the following natural risks as important to the area:
- Extreme heat
- Hurricane Wind
- Thunderstorm Wind
- Winter Storm
- Coastal Erosion
- Dam Failure
While none of these should be downplayed in favor of others, the future land for Starbase, Texas does differ from the whole county in that it’s right on the coast and lies in the middle of wetlands.
This means that Starbase will have to pay special attention to flood hazards as things get built in the area. Not only are they more vulnerable to hurricane storm surges than the rest of the county, but they’re also near the Rio Grande river that can rise when there are inland storms or dam failures. When it comes to flooding, Starbase will face risks from many vectors, all while these threats will likely increase from climate change.
It’s not a question of if it will flood as much as when it will happen. If structures are either raised a bit or designed to not get harmed by water, they’ll much more easily withstand the flooding when it comes. Roads should also be designed to either withstand periodic flooding or be built up a bit to stay out of the water (or a mixture of the two). It will also be necessary to overbuild for flooding so things don’t need rebuilt again when sea levels rise.
If this is done, there won’t be a continuous cycle of flooding and rebuilding every few years, and the town will be far more prosperous. The same goes for every identified natural hazard. Build with them in mind, and life is good, or at least not terrible, even after the risk comes.
To analyze every risk identified would be too much for this article, but for those interested, there’s a lot more detail on each risk in Cameron County’s mitigation plan. SpaceX and others settling the area will need to keep them all in mind.
Special hazards, like SpaceX malfunctions or suspicious activity near launches will also need to be considered in a city emergency plan.
Organizing The City
To full take advantage of all of the available knowledge, the city needs to have someone on staff who can get this knowledge into other city officials’ hands, develop working relationships with existing emergency management and public safety, and make sure bad things don’t get mixed into the batch before anything goes into the oven.
Before we can get to that point, the people incorporating the city have a lot of decisions to make.
First, there’s the question of whether Starbase will be a “company town”. While that may seem like a blast from the past, company-owned cities are still a thing. Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, Florida are 100% owned by Disney, for example. While the city’s residents are, of course, free to vote for whoever they will for mayor, all of the residents live on Disney’s land, and thus can’t do anything that would seriously anger the company. If they do, they’ll be evicted and someone else willing to toe the Disney line will become Mayor. It’s never come to that from what I’ve read, but it could go that way.
If SpaceX only incorporates land they own, they’ll effectively control the city government.
On the other hand, if they annex further beyond their own property, people could come in, elect leadership of their choosing, and then SpaceX wouldn’t be in control of it. Whether this would be good or bad for all involved is a very political and subjective question, but it’s definitely going to be part of the planning phase in this case.
Texas law allows for a mayor-council or council-manager form of government. Elsewhere in Texas (and many other states), council-manager is popular in larger cities while smaller cities tend to be mayor-council (Houston is the big exception in Texas). In a mayor-council city, the mayor is like the city’s president and makes executive decisions. In a council-manager city, the mayor is only the head of the city council and doesn’t have any executive power. The manager wields the executive authority and serves at the pleasure of the council in that case.
There are ups and downs to both, but having a mayor with executive authority means that the council won’t feel compelled to hire a manager. Generally managerial experience is a good thing, but you’d end up with someone who wants to run Starbase like any other city and would likely be less open to new or innovative ideas in city government. A mayor won’t feel a compelling need to act like a traditional city leader who is constantly covering their ass and always on the lookout for future career moves.
Another advantage to the mayor-council form of government is the mayor’s ability to create a special police force. While normal day-to-day law enforcement duties should always be performed by state licensed peace officers, the ability to get more manpower for emergencies from among the residents of the town can be extremely useful in emergencies and great for appointing people to positions that need to occasionally exercise police powers (including SpaceX employees performing relevant tasks, like security or fire investigation). In other words, this enables a lot more flexibility, which can allow for greater innovation and problem solving.
Building & Zoning
If everything in the city will be built by SpaceX, then this may be unnecessary. If private citizens and other companies are going to set up shop inside the city, ordinances will be needed to make sure that the city remains resilient to disaster and climate change, and to promote sustainability. Requiring structures to be elevated beyond rains, cleared for brushfires, etc will be part of this. Using renewable energy is another key element. Also, private property owners in the city need to consult periodically with the city’s emergency manager to help assess their own risks and keep the city secure.
Whether To Hire Jenn
I’d love to work for Starbase and serve as the emergency management coordinator. Not only would it be an opportunity to do things different than most cities, but it would also be an opportunity to start with a blank slate and help build something wonderful that can grow onto other planets. My DMs are open on Twitter.
Moving Toward Mars
As I pointed out in Part 1, the city gives people involved with SpaceX the opportunity to learn how to run a local government. Without a state or federal government to call for help on Mars, getting this right while there’s still a chance to err without dying is essential.
As much as possible, officials and the other people/organizations involved in the future Mars mission should start acting like there’s nobody to call for help from the beginning. I don’t mean to say that outside help shouldn’t be used when needed, but preparing to survive without that help should be the plan. As much as possible, the city needs to be self sufficient.
It’s also a good idea to work with the state and federal government to help create a “Mars Zone” in the city. In other words, something like a semi-autonomous Mars Embassy would be the goal. This would help the city to become a liaison between Mars leadership and Earth-based governments, both for mutual aid and for better coordination of other organizations’ future efforts to go to the planet. There would be a lot of work involved there over years, but it’s something worth keeping in mind early instead of later.
However the choices are made doing all of this, I hope we see Starbase, TX become a success. Living in New Mexico, I’ve seen space efforts come and go, including Spaceport City, a municipality near Las Cruces that was eventually dissolved when the spaceport never got built. Even now, Spaceport America is struggling to do anything significant (partly due to errors by state leadership). Given that SpaceX is actually doing something in Boca Chica, Spaceport seems like it could become a reality.
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