- 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.”

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