ERDC Helps Memphis District Redesign Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway Activation System

Published Sept. 20, 2012
A blast goes off during activation of the Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway. (Photo by Oscar Reihsmann, ACE-IT)

A blast goes off during activation of the Birds Point – New Madrid Floodway. (Photo by Oscar Reihsmann, ACE-IT)

Public Affairs Office

CAIRO, Ill. -- In the spring of 2011, the mighty Mississippi put on a show that no one ever wanted to see.  As the river rose to historic levels, civilian safety became the number one concern for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).  At the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers near Cairo, Ill., that meant one thing – the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway had to be activated.  Nearly 130,000 acres of designated floodway were covered with water following the explosive breach of a frontline levee, planned and executed by the Corps’ Memphis District and ERDC blast experts.  Now, more than a year later, the focus has moved to preparation for the future.

ERDC has been involved in Birds Point emergency planning for decades, a joint effort with the Memphis District.  The intricate system used last year, based on ERDC military research in anti-tank ditching conducted in the late 1970s and 80s, was made up of 23,000 feet of pipe encased in the levee and designed to be filled with explosives using barges.  The system was blown in multiple segments over a three-day period, resulting in the breaching of approximately four miles of levee and a successful end result of lowered water levels upstream and the protection of multiple cities and states at risk from levee failure.

But the mission did not stop there.  After the water receded, both the levee and the breaching system had to be put back together.

“After the levee breach and the activation of the floodway, it was necessary for the Memphis District to reestablish flood protection,” said Jason Roth, one of the ERDC team leads for the project.  “They have the lead for the total reconstruction of the system, but because of the specialized aspect – explosive breaching in a non-military setting – ERDC was called in once again, tasked with determining what should go into the modern design while still accomplishing Corps objectives and considering key constraints.  Basically, we needed to find the best possible explosive breaching system for 2012.”

Working with Memphis engineers, ERDC researchers studied a variety of factors, including lessons learned during the 2011 event, explosive cratering effectiveness, acoustic and seismic effects on surrounding communities and products currently on the market.  They also had to determine if changes needed to be made to the pipe structure based on the availability of explosive materials.  Countless tests and experiments considering pipe size and  depth,  pipe preparation, the pipe purging process, combined pipe effects  and explosive type and amount were run before final recommendations were submitted to the district.

The redesign project is now in its final stages of plan development, with construction plans moving forward.

“Memphis chose to combine two sets of piping, using the previous ERDC design and the new ERDC design as a tandem system that can be used with optional explosive materials,” said Roth.  “Using this system, the best choice for future blasting operations can be made based on constraints and available materials at the time.  The result is increased flexibility for a time-critical operation where execution within a specific time window is the key to success.”

In addition to initial planning, ERDC has provided annual equipment and personnel readiness support to the Memphis District, as well as biennial testing for explosive effectiveness, since becoming involved in the project.  During the blast event, researchers are also involved in acoustic and seismic monitoring of the blast site and surrounding areas as well as video documentation of the blast events.  The USACE Reachback Operations Center-developed Automated Route Reconnaissance Kit was also used extensively in the documentation and analysis of pre- and post-breach conditions, giving the Corps’ team the ability to monitor areas that were inaccessible due to flood water.

Looking ahead, ERDC will continue to consistently collaborate with the Memphis District to ensure lives will be safe should the waters rise again. Though the physical aspects of the project have been redesigned, the team still plans to reevaluate and update the execution plan using current technology, in addition to addressing issues such as previously unconsidered transportation difficulty due to flood waters.  ERDC project co-team leads Nick Boone and Chuck Ertle feel the team is equal to the task.

“It’s interesting to see how the Memphis District balances complex factors during a construction project,” said Boone.  “It’s also refreshing to see them rely on ERDC to investigate design elements not typically involved in flood control projects.  The most difficult research is behind us, and I am sure this project will be a success – there is no question, we have the right people on the team.”

“Working with a team comprised of members from several branches and divisions within the ERDC and the Memphis District to execute the successful operation of the Bird’s Point – New Madrid Floodway was both challenging and rewarding,” added Ertle.  “The same can be said about redesigning the system based on the availability of explosives and other logistical factors. Working under short timelines in order to get this completed before the next flood season has been challenging, but the redesigned system will provide multiple explosive options for a future successful operation of the floodway.”