Don Resio, a senior technologist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineering Research and Development Center, Vicksburg, Miss., had an “Aha!” moment in 2008 when he conceived of a way to plug roaring levee breaches using fabric tubes partially filled with water. Tested at 1:4 scale on a real breach, the device rolled into place with the water current and sealed the gap in 12 seconds.
Resio believes the principals are completely scalable, and the only thing needed to plug larger breaches, like the typical 40-ft to 60-ft levee gaps in a Mississippi flood, is a larger fabric sack .
The “portable lightweight universal gasket,” or PLUG, technology is an elegant and promising solution to potentially disastrous flooding problems. PLUG works, but thorny issues now have to be resolved before the system can be put in place, including funding, finishing the research and deciding who will own the devices, as well as stage, deploy and secure them.
The answers are not as simple as they may first appear. The U.S. has almost 100,000 miles of levees, of which 14,000 miles are under federal control and 85,000 miles managed by state, local or private organizations. Should the tubes be deployed by first responders, the National Guard, emergency-management personnel or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers? The answer to that question will determine who should be trained, but not necessarily the identity of the trainers.
Because of the disparate ownership and control of levees, the logical coordinating organization should be an existing federal one. A good candidate may well be the Dept. of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, but its response to disasters thus far has been flawed. It would seem the Corps of Engineers is the best suited, based on its knowledge of levees and their related risks.
There finally appears to be a technological breakthrough in the response to levee breaches. No matter how levees are designed and constructed—even to repel 100-year floods—there is a great likelihood they ultimately will be overwhelmed by natural forces. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, it is better, cheaper, easier and faster to have a seamless flood-control program in place before a disaster rather than after the fact. The cost of deploying PLUG technology has not yet been calculated, but it will be a pittance relative to rebuilding devastated areas. Minutes mean money when floods come rushing.