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Science & Technology Bloggers' Roundtable: Levee PLUG Transcript

November 17, 2009
Washington, D.C.

John Verrico, Spokesman, Science & Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Wil Laska, Program Manager, Science & Technology Directorate

John Verrico:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Welcome to the Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate’s blogger roundtable for Tuesday, November 17, 2009.  I’m John Verrico, and I’ll be moderating the call today.  We’re going to go around the line and see who we have on the line.  So Ben Bain, are you still with us? 

Ben Bain:  Yeah, I’m here.

John Verrico:  David Olive?

David Olive:  Still here.

John Verrico:  Rob, you still here?  Rob Margetta?

Rob Margetta:  Yes, I am.

John Verrico:  Okay.  Are there any other bloggers on the line?  All right, there are several others who RSVP'd, so they may be joining us as we get going.  As a note to our bloggers, we’re conducting these blogger roundtables so that we can give you an opportunity to discuss this week’s topic with our subject-matter experts in an effort to provide you with a better understanding of the issue and to have your questions answered.  There’s right now about half a dozen people total on the line; if everybody gets on, we’ll have about 10, so I ask that whenever you speak, because we don’t all necessarily recognize everyone’s voices, please identify yourself by name every time you do speak or ask a question.

This session is being recorded, and both the audio recording and a written transcript will be made available later.  I ask that you please conduct yourself in a professional and courteous manner; I don’t think I really need to tell you that, but please be respectful of the time of our guest and your fellow bloggers.  Our subject-matter expert will give an overview of the topic, and then we’ll open the line to questions.  In the fairness of time for everyone, we’ll go around the phone line so that each of you can ask one question, and then we’ll open it up for more of a free-for-all follow-up.

If there are no questions about the format, then we’ll go ahead and introduce today’s guest.  Any questions?  I’ll take that as a no.  So our guest today is Wil Laska, who will be talking about the levee-plug demonstration that took place last week and tell you where we are with this technology.  Wil is a program manager with S&T’s Innovation Program, which is the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known as HSARPA, and that’s where we focus on potentially game-changing and very challenging projects, usually the kind of stuff that everybody else thinks is going to fail, so they don’t want to try it.

Specifically, Wil is involved with levee strengthening and rapid-repair programs along with storm-surge mitigation and a variety of other critical programs that are designed to save lives and reduce human suffering and limit costs.  He is a former Navy attack pilot and holds a degree – holds, actually, degrees in systems engineering, and he’s also an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland.  So I’d now like to introduce Wil Laska and we’ll go from there.  Wil?

Wil Laska:  Okay, John, thank you very much.  What I’d like to do is just kind of give you a brief background about the program and some information about it as you go forward and then I’ll tell you about the demonstration we had on the 9th of November out in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  The program started back in 2007, and it was the initial idea of our then secretary, Jay Cohen, who went down to the ERDC facility, and ERDC stands for Engineer Research Development Center, down in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  The ERDC folks are sort of the R&D research folks for the Army Corps of Engineers, and Jay Cohen went down to the visit the director of ERDC, who’s Dr. Jim Houston, and during the conversation, Jay Cohen said that, you know, we really needed something that could seal the breaches in levees because of the recent hurricane and flooding that had evolved from the breaches in levees, and thus the program started.

So there’s three projects to the program itself.  First one was looking at a way of remotely sensing the condition of a levee, the second project was looking at a way of strengthening a levee and a third project was trying to come up with a way of quickly sealing a breach in the levee if that were to happen.  So we started working in those three projects in 2007, and then as we went along, there were some funding cuts, so we sort of whittled things down to the one project, which was the Rapid Repair of Levee Breaches Project, and we continued that through 2008 and 2009.

The Corps of Engineers came up with a unique sort of solution to test with when we first started looking at this, and I – in the past, how we sealed levees was bringing in just a bunch of sandbags.  You’d bring them in, you’d get a – truck them in if you could, or you bring them in via helicopters and drop them in.  And of course, that took a tremendous amount of time to accomplish.  In some cases, it took days to stop the flow of water going through the breech in the levee.  So being able to come up with something that could – (inaudible, background noise) – quickly, you know, I think that we would achieve a needed capability, definitely, and – to help preserve life, property and liberty and all of the good stuff.

John Verrico:  Hold on for just a second, did somebody just join us?  Did someone just join us?  Okay, we’ll go ahead and continue.

Rob Margetta:  That was me, I’m sorry, I dropped off and dropped back on.

John Verrico:  Who’s me?

Rob Margetta:  Rob Margetta, sorry about that.

John Verrico:  Thanks, Rob.

Wil Laska:  So as we started looking into this, we had to figure out, okay, how best to do this.  We thought about bringing some tarp-like material to lay in front of the breach or bring solid metal plates and put them into place, but we had some constraints that we were working with.  Number one, the environment was very harsh.  We knew that we couldn’t bring 18-wheelers or heavy equipment in the area to do the repairs; we needed something that was relatively lightweight, at least light enough to be airborne or brought in via helicopter or else being brought in by the barge.

We needed something that could be in place within four to six hours after the breach was found.  The reason we have four to six hour is because the sooner you could seal the breach, the more effective that seal can be.  You know, as soon as the water starts flowing through, and dependent upon the soil and how it was constructed, it could erode very quickly, and one thing we found out is that there’s a tremendous amount of forces involved when you do try to seal that breach, so the sooner we can get to it, the more effective we can be.

What we ended up doing is coming up with a, for a better term, it’s just a fabric tube that we are using to seal the breach itself, and what’s unique about this fabric tube is that it’s really filled with water to give it some stability, so we’re sort of using water to stop water.  And why we’re using water?  Well, there’s plenty of it there, but water being non-compressible, we could use it so as the tube goes in front of the breach itself, it can seal it without being sucked through, because it becomes very solid at that point. 

Now, there are a number of these tubes that we’ve developed, because there’s different types of breaches out there, and we’re still not at the final endpoint yet, we’re still doing some work on this, but we have two basic kind of breaches that we’re looking at.  We’re looking at breaches that we call the narrow and deep breaches, and these are breaches that are only 10, 20 feet wide and go down about 15, 20 feet, and then we have the long and shallow breaches.  These are the ones that may go out to 100 feet but only less than three feet deep. 

So you have two types of – different types of tubes that you would use to counter those things.  The other item that we did test out there, we needed a way of being able to prevent erosion over the levee in case we had to let water flow over it.  There will be cases and situations where you want water to overtop levees; what you don’t want is that overtopping water to start to erode the unprotected side of the levee such as you’re going to have failures and causing breaches and so forth, so that was the third item that we were looking at and trying.  It’s just a tarp laid over the levee, and what we accomplished there was allowing the water to overtop.

Now, these three plugs that I just described we demonstrated last year out at Stillwater, Oklahoma at the USDA Hydraulics Lab in Stillwater.  This was last September of 2008.  It was a fantastic demonstration; we proved the concept, that yes, what we’re doing, at least we’re on the right track, and did seal the breach.  Now, the demonstration we did earlier this month, on the 9th of November, last week, we basically demonstrated those same three products we did last year, but we added a fourth system this year, and we call this one the arch.

And basically what the arch does is that it’s a much larger system, and since we call it an arch, it’s basically arched in shape, so that may give you some sort of indication of what this system looks like, and the purpose for the system is that there will come a time that once you have your plug in place which has sealed the breach, you’re going to have to have some way of being able to remove the plug so you can permanently repair the breach itself. 

Now, how this has been done in the past normally is that you build a cofferdam around the opening.  Very expensive, very time-consuming, and you have to tear it apart.  It just is very difficult to do, so what this arch will do, it will act as a temporary cofferdam.  Again, basically, it will be filled with water, it’s made with the same material, and then it will settle down and will act as a barrier, a portable cofferdam, that will prevent further water from entering where the breach area is so you can take out the temporary breach and put a permanent repair in it.

You can also use this arch system for a number of other things, especially if you’re working around bridge embankments and you needed to secure an area, or even around small channels, to secure water flowing through the small channels, which is really kind of a neat system.  So we did that, we did the demonstration on the ninth, you know, we tested these four things out, everything worked very well, we’re very happy with it. 

Now, the scale that we worked – that we’re working at isn’t full-scale.  We sort of consider what we’re doing as about quarter scale, and what is quarter scale?  That’s a good question.  What we’re considering quarter scale is something that will allow us to seal a breach with the flow rate of around 125 cubic feet per second going through a breach.  What we’re trying to accomplish next is a full scale, and we’re looking at a full scale being a breach that has a flow of 1500 to 2,000 cubic feet per second. 

So it’s quite a leap upward in capability.  The intention is to do a demonstration on the full-scale breach next June, July timeframe of 2010, so we are in the process now of looking for a facility to build that we can do the demonstration an testing of the full-scale breach.  And that’s the tricky part right now, because to get those kind of flows of water, you just can’t put this anywhere.  So we’re looking a number of sites, mostly around the south part of the states, to build this system.

John Verrico:  This is John Verrico.  I just want to add to that.  As you can imagine, we can’t just walk into a local community and say, hey, we’re going to test a levee plug, mind if we rip a hole in your levee?  So that’s why we have to build a facility for this, because it’s really no other way to do this.

Wil Laska:  I don’t have much more I need to add on this.  We’re moving forward; we have funding this year in 2010, and there’s funding that goes out a couple more years, but hopefully we’re going to have a final demonstration of this next June, July timeframe showing the full version of the systems that I did mention.  Also during this time period we’re going to try to come up and develop a concept of operations on how the system will be used in the real world, if there happened to be a breach.  Talk about anything else?

John Verrico:  You want to talk about the successes from last week?

Wil Laska:  Well, we did – again, the things worked as planned last week.  Of course, I wouldn’t say they failed – (chuckles) – but things worked as planned.  We’re very happy with it.  One of the main reasons we had this demonstration last week was we needed the instrument, the plugs that we had.  When we did this last year, they were not instrumented because of just being an HSARPA program, we needed to get the proof of concept out.  And things worked very well last year, so this year we instrumented the plugs.  The reason why we instrumented them was because we needed to find out that as we bring the scale up to a much larger size, are we going to have to do something special with the materials used to build the plugs itself?

And so my lead scientist at ERDC is Dr. Don Ruzio (ph).  He has modeled scaling this up to a larger size, but he needed to validate his model, and that’s why we did the instrumentation.  So on the actual demonstration part, it was a success.  It did the sealing, it did – it held water in place, and as for the instrumentation, they got the data that they needed and they’re right now working on a model to try to come up with what we need to make a larger-scale version of what we demonstrated last week.

John Verrico:  Okay, thank you, Wil.  By the way, folks, I do have some very short video clips that I can send you if you wanted to attach those to your blog, and I can send you some additional photos as well.  With that, let’s open it up for questions, and let me start it off by going around and offering you each one question for starters.  So Ben Bain, I’m going to put you on the spot first.

Ben Bain:  So what are your next plans to test it and put it in place?  Is there another kind of more advanced test or more – any different scenario that you’re going to try to do this?

Wil Laska:  What we’re going to do – the next big – well, the next test will be again, in the next June, July timeframe, so not only are we going to be testing at more of a full-scale representation of what would actually be used, but also to refine how the systems are going to be deployed.  Right now, in Stillwater, these are, again, quarter-scale systems, and they’re – and they were handled by four or five people to bring them along.  They have ropes on them and they get them in place and use them and sort of guide them into the breach itself.  In a real-world situation, it’s going to be much different than that, because these will be much larger.  You may have a little different environment that’s a bit more harsh than sunny skies in Oklahoma, and so what we need to do is test that, and that’s one of the things that we will be doing in the full-scale facility.

Ben Bain:  So then in terms of, like, the typical process for these kinds of high-risk different, I guess, products that you develop or test, what’s kind of the, I guess, overall process for how this becomes something that, you know, whatever agency, be it federal, state or local is going to actually be using day-in, day-out to protect the levee?

Wil Laska:  This is a question that we’ve been trying to answer for quite awhile, so what I’ve been doing is talking to people from the various states who would be – who would use a system like this, talking to the emergency-management agencies from the states and talking to the National Guard folks from the states.  We’ve been working with FEMA, working with the Corps of Engineers on this, and also we’ve been attending a number of the conferences across the country that talk about floodplain management and levee. 

We’re also involved with the dam-sector IPTs and the levee sub-sector.  I just gave a briefing on this, I think, two weeks ago, when they had the quarterly meeting up here in Washington.  So it just – it’s an ongoing process, we’re trying to – we’ve been working with the stakeholders and users on trying to work out, okay, what are they looking for?  How would they normally handle a breach in levee, and the Corps of Engineers, they are not responsible for all the levees in the country.  They’re only responsible for the levees that they own, and basically, we’re looking at 14 or 15,000 miles of levee in the country.  There could be over 100,000 miles of levee in the country and we don’t know the exact figure because we don’t have – because we don’t know where all the levees are. 

FEMA and the Corps of Engineers are in the process right now of cataloguing all the levees, and they can put an – and these will be put in a national database once this gets complete.  But most of the levees in the country are not owned by the corps, so what happens when a levee breaches?  Again, it all depends on where the levee is, if you have a strong levee board in an area that’s controlling a levee, they may have plans in place already to help repair the breach the old-fashioned way, using sandbags.  But unless a governor declares an emergency state, the corps will not get involved in non-corps levees.

So we’re trying to work out the best business plan, for a better term, on how this system will be used.

Ben Bain:  Okay, thanks. 

John Verrico:  If I can – before we move to the next question, Wil, it might help if you could describe – we’re talking quarter scale, full scale.  Can we give some physical dimensions to kind of get a better picture for what that is? 

Wil Laska:  Well, the quarter scale – and again, please, don’t say quarter scale is this exact number.  I’m just using this as a nominal figure.  What we have – what we’ve been testing is the plug itself, which works against the narrow and deep kind of breaches, we’re looking at something around maybe 20 feet long, 23 feet long, about five feet in diameter.  You kick that up to a full scale, maybe you’re looking at 80 feet long, maybe 15 to 20 feet in diameter, if not a little bit larger than that.  So it jumps up quite large, looking at the full scale, and the same with the arch system, which is much larger, and the shallow and the long system, which is a little bit easier to handle because it’s smaller, but still, it increases in size.  It’s – the diameter isn’t quite as large as the other plugs, or other systems.

John Verrico:  Okay.  So David Olive?

David Olive:  Yeah, Wil, can you give us a sense of what your budget has been this past year and in the coming years for this and what the cost of the plug itself may run, depending on if it’s the short and fat or long and thin deal, and how – if anybody’s put some econometrics around that as to how that compares with, as you described it, the old system of dropping sandbags in until they fill up the hole?

Wil Laska:  Okay.  What we – and again, I said we started this in 2007 and I had $1.9 million for all three projects.  For this particular project, I think I put around 300, $400,000 to start this project off.  In 2008, I had – let’s see, was it 1.2 million and in 2009 I had 2.3 million.  So that’s one, two, three, four – about $4 million total for the past two, three years on this.  For this year, for 2010, I have about $4 million to build the facility and test it to full-scale, and that’s – so for – to get what we’re going to get out of this, I think this has been done fairly cheaply, and it’s going to be a win for everyone.  It’s really a neat system.

Now, going back to your cost for this system once it’s complete, what we’re trying to do is keep the costs as realistic, as low as we possibly can, and we sort of set a rough figure around 250,000, let’s say, per setup, and per setup would be – you know, it could be a plug, it could be the plug with the pumps that go along with it and have everything on a pallet so everything is self-contained, and we’re looking at something to be less than 20,000 pounds total weight so it can be airlifted in using some of the standard equipment that the National Guard has, the helicopters that the National Guard has.

Again, we don’t have a definite figure for the final cost on the system, but we know that we can’t – it can’t be too expensive or no one’s going to buy it.  So I’m looking at 250,000 as a nominal figure, and that includes the entire system. 

We’re also looking – this – we’re also looking to be very competitive with this, trying to get other companies to build the fabric or to develop the fabric and build the systems for us, and right now, the one company that’s doing this is out on the West Coast, and the reason why that company is doing it is because my senior scientist has been using them on similar projects, and so it just seemed like a good fit to continue with them, since they were very familiar with the product and with the material being used.

Once we get this complete and we know what the material structure needs to be, then we’ll go out with a competitive bid on this, and anyone who can develop a polyester with a PVC coating with it could make the material for these systems.

John Verrico:  Okay, Rob Margetta, I think it’s your turn.

Rob Margetta:  I’m just wondering – I know this would be a temporary solution to levee breaches, and I’m wondering if there has been any consideration as to how this would work with – to permanently plug up any holes.

Wil Laska:  You know, the – I asked a question to our senior scientist about this, saying, how long could the plug stay in place and seal the breach?  And it can stay there for many weeks.  He’s not going to give me a definite figure, but he’s very comfortable in saying, yeah, that thing can stay there for many weeks if needed.  The whole thrust behind the program is to try to seal that breach quickly, and to give you a fact here is that if we were to have been able and seal the 17th St. breach in New Orleans during Katrina by 1:00 or 1:30 that afternoon, we could have saved over 100 – or $1.5 billion in direct damages, not to mention secondary and tertiary damages caused by the flooding itself.  So that’s – to me, that’s one heck of a payback on trying to come up with a system that will seal the breach. 

John Verrico:  All right, now I’ll open it up for follow-up questions.  Just please identify yourself when you ask your question so we know who you are.  No more questions?

Wil Laska:  Well, heck, I guess I did a good job.  (Laughter.)

John Verrico:  Did anybody else join –

David Olive:  This is – I mean, this is David.  Let me ask one follow-up.  I know y’all have reached out to a number of different potential customers about buying it.  Can you tell us what pushback you’re getting from levee districts, from National Guard, from the Corps of Engineers itself or even from FEMA about buying these and putting them in a ready warehouse?  Because I know that’s been a concern that y’all have had on transitioning this out into the commercial sector. 

Wil Laska:  Yeah, we’ve had a number of people call us and asking us if they can buy some of these plugs that we’ve developed and it’s always been my thinking that until we can really test these to a full scale and have some training sort of identified, I really don’t want people to use these plugs because I’m afraid that they could use them incorrectly and they would fail, and the last thing we need is to have a system fail and say, oh my goodness, DHS, why didn’t you study this more, why didn’t you certify this?  After we do the full-scale demonstration next summer, then I think we’ll be much more comfortable in saying, yeah, these systems are certified, you can use them and here’s how you’re going to use them and here’s the training required and then go forward from there. 

We’ve been working very closely with FEMA; we’ve been working very closely with the Army Corps of Engineers, and again, working closely with a lot of the emergency-management agencies from some of the states around the Mississippi and California, because they have a very serious levee problem around the Sacramento Delta area out there.  Working very close with these people, trying to keep them informed what we’re doing, and then you know, they’re sort of part of team, and I’m sure that once we get near or once we complete the final testing, then I think we’d feel much more comfortable in saying, okay, here’s what we have, we’ll try to get private industry to come in to maybe try to commercialize this for us.  We’re still thinking those details out.

David Olive:  Great, thanks.

John Verrico:  Anybody else?  Was that an almost question?

David Olive:  Oh, I said thanks.  (Laughter.)

Wil Laska:  If – let me say this, if anyone has another – if you can think of a question or have a concern or whatever, please, it’s a neat program, I enjoy talking about it, and I’m more than happy to answer whatever questions you have on it, so – and I think my contact information or –

John Verrico:  Just contact me.

Wil Laska:  Just contact John, and he’ll relay the information or the question to me.

John Verrico:  Now, did everyone receive the draft snapshot article?

Mr.:  Yeah, I got it. 

John Verrico:  Okay.  Good, that will be posted on the DHS Web site later on this afternoon, and you should be able to find it.  You’ll probably get your – if you are normally getting the snapshots and get the alerts, as soon as you get the alert you can link to the article if you like.  And like I said, when we clear from here, I will go back to my desk and get some photos and a short video clip into your hands if you would like to use those.

Mr.:  Hey, John, are you going to post those videos on the DHS S&T Web site?

John Verrico:  We were having problems posting the videos on that site.  Until we can get them – we have to get the close-captioning done for those in order to meet those regulations, so we haven’t gotten them on yet.  We’re working on getting that taken care of, and as soon as we can get the close-captioning done we’ll get a video up there as well. 

Mr.:  Okay, thanks.

John Verrico:  Any other questions, folks?  If there no further questions then we’ll go ahead and wrap this up.  If you need to reach me or have any further questions or think of anything after we get off this call, you can reach me at john, J-O-H-N, dot-verrico, V as in Victor-E-R-R-I-C-O, at dhs.gov, and I’ll be happy to chat with you or get whatever additional information that you might need.

Thank you all for participating and we’ll talk to you next time.

Mr.:  Thanks.

Mr.:  Thanks a lot. 


Last Updated: 10/22/2021
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