- The Washington Times
Thursday, November 1, 2012

Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security announced a successful test for a giant high-pressure balloon that can plug a mass-transit tunnel, in theory preventing damaging floods such as the ones flowing through New York’s subway system.

In 2009, the department’s Science and Technology Directorate ballyhooed another flood-prevention breakthrough. It publicized a plug that can be dropped from a helicopter to seal a breach and keep a levee from spilling over, such as the one that may have broken in New Jersey during Sandy’s wind-driven invasion.

But neither the tunnel nor the levee plugs found their way to the Northeast last week, even as the National Weather Service was predicting a fierce storm that could flood tunnels and towns alike.

Two tunnel-airbag prototypes sit at a West Virginia University laboratory. The levee plug is still being tested by the Army Corps of Engineers in Mississippi. A Homeland Security spokeswoman said it is on “standby.”

To some specialists, such as the West Virginia University professor who invented the tunnel plug, officially called the Resilient Tunnel Project, it simply will take more research-and-development time before the inflatable “air bag” can be produced and sold to local transportation authorities.

But to some in Congress, the science directorate, with a budget projected to reach nearly $1 billion, has a poor track record on funding disaster-relief and -prevention projects that actually get built and used.

A 2009 Congressional Research Service report listed seven main complaints from members of Congress. Among them were that the unit lacked “metrics and goals for evaluating the directorate’s output” and was missing both a defined mission and customer list.

Three years later, operations are not much better, according to one congressman on the House Homeland Security Committee.

Rep. Mike Rogers, Alabama Republican, wrote in The Washington Times last week that the department’s science and technology section remains “largely ineffective in its current form.”

A department spokeswoman had no immediate response to his criticism.

The government’s tunnel-plug project began in 2007 with a department contract award to West Virginia University, where Ever J. Barbero, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, built several prototypes.

One was taken to Washington’s Metro system in 2008 and showed it could block the flow of a possible terrorist weapon: poison gas. Then came a flood test last January in a replica of a mass-transit tunnel at the university.

Afterward, Homeland Security promised great things to come. It “successfully tested an unprecedented technology for containing flooding or dangerous gases in mass-transit tunnels: a giant plug,” the department said, adding that the plug “can be filled with water or air in minutes to seal off a section of tunnel before flooding gets out of control.”

The department boasted that the plug “provides an affordable, easily installed, quickly deployable solution to protect vital mass-transit systems.”

“They closed the end of the test tunnel and ‘flooded’ it with enough water to mimic the intense pressure of a real-life tunnel flood well below sea level,” the department said. “Despite the high pressure, the seal held. The plug was a success.”

Mr. Barbero said for the plug to have worked in New York, he would have had to have taken measurements and then built a custom-made balloon to those dimensions.

“To close a tunnel near the surface for surface runoff like what happened now is relatively easy,” he said. “If we had been contacted some time ago, we could have easily designed one for that situation. If you want to seal a tunnel, I have a team that is ready to do this. We have the expertise.”

A new test is planned for Nov. 8, to be attended by Homeland Security officials. Another success may spur the department to find a commercial producer that then could market the plugs to transit authorities. The air bags would be positioned at various tunnel locations and be activated by remote control.

Homeland Security three years ago also boasted about a second plug — a 105-foot-long tube that could be dropped from the air into a levee and then would flow to the breach, such as the ones that opened in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina and flooded New Orleans.

“It worked,” a 2009 departmental press release said of a test done by the Army Corps of Engineers’ test center in Vicksburg, Miss.

“The incompressible nature of water and the unyielding fabric turn the tube into a rigid plug that conforms to the breach and seals it,” the release said.

But two years later, the department lost interest in the Portable Lightweight Ubiquitous Gasket and ended funding, the former program manager, Will Laska, told The Washington Times.

“Homeland Security Department S&T funded it up to a certain point, and after that point, they did not want to transition it to the next level, which was trying to integrate it into systems that are out there already,” he said.

“This is not a silver bullet. But it does work in different situations. We put together a [concept of operations] on this. We were all set to go forward and talk to people and try to sell it, but then we just got the funding pulled from us.”

Numerous press reports this week said a levee in Bergen County, N.J., broke, flooding three towns.

Wayne Stroupe, a Corps of Engineers spokesman, told The Times he knows of no request from any government entity to bring the plug to the Northeast.

Mr. Stroupe said the plug was damaged in a recent demonstration and is just about ready to work again.

The Corps is developing two other plugs designed specifically for waterways in Florida.

“It is amazing technology, and we need to get it out there,” Mr. Stroupe said.

He said the Corps “might have” been able to ship the plug to New Jersey. “It’s more aimed at levees if you can catch them in that early part before they start unraveling and growing bigger,” he said.

House Republicans made deep cuts in the Science and Technology Directorate’s budget in 2011, and in a compromise with Senate Democrats, it ended up with $668 million for fiscal 2012. President Obama requested $831 million for this fiscal year. The Senate agreed; the House provided $695 million.

Because no budget was passed, the government is running on a continuing resolution that keeps the level at $668 million.

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