Shared from the 4/29/2019 The Denver Post eEdition
“Elevated threat risk”
Drones, supercomputers and sonar deployed against floods
By Adrian Sainz and Jeff Martin
The Associated Press
Adrian Sainz, Associated Press file
MEMPHIS, TENN.»An arsenal of new technology is being put to the test fighting floods this year as rivers inundate towns and farm fields across the central United States. Drones, supercomputers and sonar that scans deep under water are helping to maintain flood- control projects and predict just where rivers will roar out of their banks.
Together, these tools are putting detailed information to use in real time, enabling emergency managers and people at risk to make decisions that can save lives and property, said Kristie Franz, associate professor of geological and atmospheric sciences at Iowa State University.
The cost of this technology is coming down even as disaster recovery becomes more expensive, so “anything we can do to reduce the costs of these floods and natural hazards is worth it,” she said. “Of course, loss of life, which you can’t put a dollar amount on, is certainly worth that as well.”
U.S. scientists said in their spring weather outlook that 13 million people are at risk of major inundation, with more than 200 river gauges this month showing some level of flooding in the Mississippi River Basin, which drains the vast middle of the United States. Major flooding continues in places from the Red River in North Dakota to near the mouth of the Mississippi in Louisiana, a map from the National Weather Service shows.
“There are over 200 million people that are under some elevated threat risk,” said Ed Clark, director of the National Water Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., a flood forecasting hub.
Much of the technology, such as the National Water Model, didn’t exist until recently. Fueled by supercomputers in Virginia and Florida, it came online about three years ago and expanded streamflow data by 700-fold, assembling data from 5 million river miles of rivers and streams nationwide.
Emergency managers and dam safety officials can see simulations of the consequences of floodwaters washing away a levee or crashing through a dam using technology developed at the University of Mississippi. The software went online in 2017 and quickly provided simulations that informed the response to heavy rains that damaged spillways at the nation’s tallest dam in northern California.
The program also helped forecast the flooding after Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana that year.
Engineers monitoring levees along the Mississippi River have been collecting and checking data using a geographic information system, said Nick Bidlack, levee safety program manager for the Memphis district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
On the Mississippi River, flood inspectors use smartphones or tablets in the field to input data into map-driven forms for water levels and the locations of inoperable flood gates, seepages, sand boils or levee slides. Photos, videos and other data are sent to an emergency flood operation center in real time, Bidlack said.
Corps engineers are increasingly flying drones to get their own aerial photography and video of flooded areas, said Edward Dean, a Corps engineer.
The Corps also now uses high-definition sonar in its daily operations to survey the riverbed, pinpointing where maintenance work needs to be done, said Corps engineer Andy Simmerman.
During recent flooding near Cairo, Ill., a culvert that should have been closed was sending water onto the dry side of a levee. The sonar pointed engineers to the location of a log that was stuck 20 feet deep in murky water, keeping the culvert open. Plastic sheathing and sandbags were brought in to stop the flow and save the land below.