A louisiana State University engineering professor is lobbying congressional staff and Bush administration officials to push a system she...
WASHINGTON — A Louisiana State University engineering professor is lobbying congressional staff and Bush administration officials to push a system she says could protect many homes from the kind of disastrous flooding that occurred in Hurricane Katrina.
Elizabeth English, who is affiliated with the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, hopes to borrow an idea from the Dutch, who use “buoyant foundations” in some flood-prone communities to reduce flood damage.
In effect, the system works like a floating dock. When flooding occurs, the house is lifted above the water by flotation blocks beneath the home. The house settles to ground level when the flooding recedes. The concept, English said, is designed especially for wood-frame homes, such as the so-called “shotguns” — houses consisting of three to five rooms in a row with no hallways — common in New Orleans. It would not work, at least as now conceived, for brick or concrete-slab homes.
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English said she heard about the idea last year during a symposium with counterparts from the Netherlands.
“I thought this could work in New Orleans,” English said. “If the Dutch can do it, we should be able to do it in Louisiana.”
The concept is relatively simple.
The flotation blocks, made of expanded polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, are held together by steel frames and attached to the underside of a house, according to a description of her proposal. Four vertical guidance poles are attached not far from the corners of the house.
When flooding occurs, the flotation blocks lift the house.
Collars are attached around the poles to ensure that the house doesn’t go anywhere but up when the water rises and down when it falls, English said. The homes would be strengthened with steel channels attached to the bottom beams to ensure they are strong enough to withstand being lifted and dropped.
Hilary Inyang, director of the Global Institute for Energy and Environmental Systems at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said English’s proposal is a “more sophisticated version” of what flood-prone communities in many countries have used for decades — attaching homes to stilts.
“There are some practical difficulties with that concept, such as what you do about utilities that are generally tied in one place,” Inyang said. “You’d have to make them more flexible. And you’d have to make sure that with these new foundations, you don’t make these buildings more vulnerable to other environmental stresses, such as wind.
“So you’d want this done experimentally at first before you do it wholesale.”
In her proposal, English talks about using “self-sealing breakaway connections” for utility lines, or long, coiled umbilical lines that would allow electrical and telephone lines to move away from a home when it rises during a flood. Plumbing and sewage lines also can be designed to break away as needed, she said.
She estimated that building and installing the foundation would cost about $20,000. She stressed that the figure is “very preliminary” based on estimates for the cost of materials and installation and experience building floating foundations along some Louisiana bayous.
The floating foundation has some clear advantages over the preferred flood-mitigation solution of elevating homes on a permanent foundation or piers, English said.
Raising homes make access difficult, particularly for the elderly, she said. Higher houses also are more vulnerable to strong winds.
Moreover, English said, setting homes at street level makes them fit in better with neighboring structures, helping to preserve a neighborhood’s culture and facilitate conversations between porch-sitters and passers-by.
“A buoyant foundation home would remain at street level when it’s dry, ready to rise with the floodwater,” English said.
English said she was excited to hear Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator David Paulison at a hurricane conference in New Orleans talk about how his agency is committed to change and not trying the same old techniques it has relied on in the past.
“I hope that’s true,” said English, who said she handed Paulison a copy of her proposal after his speech. FEMA approval would be needed to include buoyant foundations as flood mitigation.
FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker said English’s information would be evaluated by agency staffers.
English said it would take about $200,000 to build a prototype and test it by releasing floodwater to see if it could keep the home dry during a significant flood.
What the technology won’t do, at least now, is provide protection from a strong storm surge like the one that inundated homes near failed levees and in St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward.
English said she is looking for a financial “angel” to help pay for a thorough test. If buoyant foundations were in place before Katrina, she said she thinks the number of destroyed and severely damaged homes would have been substantially reduced.