To Combat Rising Seas, Why Not Raise Up The Town?

When the Great Storm of 1900 battered Galveston, Texas, the town simply lifted itself up—in some places as much as 17 feet. Could a similar approach save cities today? Randy Behm of the US Army Corps of Engineers and Dwayne Jones of the Galveston Historical Foundation talk about the costs and feasibility of raising a town, albeit with better technology than Galveston's hand-cranked jacks and mules.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. When Hurricane Sandy rolled through the Northeast, the water kept rising higher and higher, flooding houses, even washing some of them away. Highlands, New Jersey, just outside of New York City, for example, over 80 percent of the homes were damaged or destroyed. So the mayor of the town, Frank Nolan, had and idea. Why not just raise up the town? Put the buildings on stilts. Might sound like a radical idea but many coastal homes in the south are already built on stilts. In fact, the entire town of Galveston, Texas was lifted. The buildings were put up on stilts up over a century ago after the great hurricane of 1900. In some place as much as 17 feet, and that's with hand-cranked jacks and mules.

So how feasible would that be on coast lines everywhere? What engineering challenges does raising a town face? Our series on the new normal, preparing for climate change and the storms of the future continues. Joining me now to talk about that are my guests, Dwayne Jones, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation in Galveston, Texas. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DWAYNE JONES: Thanks very much. Glad to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Randy Behm is chairman of the National Nonstructural Flood Proofing Committee that's at the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in Omaha. He joins us from studios there. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

RANDY BEHM: Thank you very much. Good afternoon.

FLATOW: Good afternoon. Dwayne, tell us for a minute what happened there in Galveston? What do they do?

JONES: Well, after the 1900 hurricane in which was, of course, a devastating thing physically, and with the loss of human life. Galveston began to pretty earnestly think about how it might protect itself from future storms. And although they had talked about a sea wall before the 1900 hurricane, nothing had really come about because Galveston is a barrier island and has a very dynamic land form, of course, that follows that, and it had been thinking about what this would be.

So after the hurricane, leaders got together to, and the army corp. assisted leadership on the design and so forth, an order to build a sea wall. And it was designed to be 17-feet high at the - on the gulf side of the island, and the initial construction of it was four miles long. It was later added another six and a half miles where it is today. So at 17 feet, at this gulf side of Galveston, and it sloped down toward Galveston Bay which is, of course, the other side of the island. And the city began to be raised behind it. So everything was lifted up. Depending on where you were on that slope, from 17 down to the bay, you were lifted up - houses, townhouses, sidewalks, fences, everything was raised.

FLATOW: And this was done with all hand-operated cranking-material? Some jacks?

JONES: Yeah. The frame's dwelling so for most lot of frame residences and they were lifted up and put on blocks. And just - and you could literally see the photographs were you're seeing everything raised. Now, a number of stone and brick buildings were also raised and those were carefully jacked up. And the photograph that show them, just show hundreds of jacks underneath the buildings, slowly being edged raised up.

FLATOW: Randy Behm, how hard is it today to do that kind of thing, to lift up a neighborhood?

BEHM: We don't usually use mules or horses in today's engineering feat so it is quite a bit more easier.

FLATOW: Is it being done in New Orleans, I understand?

BEHM: Yeah. It is. In fact, in a number of locations around the country but after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast area of Louisiana, there's a number of communities that either, upon themselves, or with assistance from the state or federal agencies have gone in and they've done anything from elevating residential structures to even commercial structures.

FLATOW: And is there anything that you cannot raise, that's out of bounds?

BEHM: No, generally from everything I've seen, and it's a usually a challenge for an engineer, but they like that challenge. They can try to raise everything now that there could costs associated with how high you want to raise it so you want to look at those flood characteristics, you know, how deep will the water be, how fast will it flow. You're also looking at site characteristics, what kind of soil types do you have to deal with: can you easily place fill material, can you drill down piers. And then you'd even want to look that building characteristics. You know, how large of a building are you looking at. Is it brick, is it wood, concrete. So there are some parameters that you have to look at.

FLATOW: Is the idea to put them on the houses and buildings on stilts and to have steps that lead up it, or it's actually put landfill in there and fill it in with soil.

BEHM: Generally, if you have room and if you're talking maybe something in more of a rural environment, placing it on fill works very well. And you can landscape that fill in so that you can't even tell as you drive by on a street looking towards a structure that it's been placed on fill. Sometimes you don't even see that it's been elevated like that.

But generally, if you're looking at a more densely populated community with - like neighborhoods with structures upon structures, it's easier just to raise them directly vertically on piers or columns.

FLATOW: Dwayne, is that what they did in Galveston?

JONES: Pretty much. In Galveston's case, we have a very - it's all sand. And so what they did was they - actually behind the 17th foot of the seawall as it was constructed, they put canals through, and had barges and pumps that took the soil or the fill from the Galveston Bay and pumped it into - underneath the properties. So they would go kind of block by block, lift the properties up in that block, pump underneath it and then go - keep going across the island, which is what they did for seven years.

FLATOW: It took seven years to do that. Yeah. Randy, is there any danger that you're just going to crack the house in half or something if you don't do it right or - how do you do it right?

BEHM: There's always that danger. And I think now, with the technology that's in place, instead of using these hand-crank jacks, there's a hydraulic unified jack system that place multiple jacks underneath the structure and try to raise them all at one time hydraulically. And then they'll stabilize that. And from there, they'll raise it a little bit more. So generally, what you want to do is try to have that structure moving vertically as level as possible so that you don't find any cracks in it.

FLATOW: Were you ever involved in one of these things?

BEHM: I've seen them. I haven't actually participated in it, but I've been around to the point where I've seen residential structures. They always ask that the family or the homeowner, you know, not live in the structure while it's being elevated, of course. And I've seen structures where we've been in talking to the homeowner right when it was getting ready to be elevated. The homeowner was drinking a cup of coffee, sat his cup down on the kitchen table. We were ask to vacate the premises, went outside for a half hour while they raised the structure. We want back inside and the coffee was still sitting in the cup on the table without having sloshed over the sides.

FLATOW: No kidding.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: So even you were impressed with that.

BEHM: Very impressed, yeah.

FLATOW: Is it easy, Randy, to find a company that'll raise your house up if you want to do that?

BEHM: It's probably easier to find it in the coastal areas because of the - what we have to deal with on the oceans, the hurricanes, wave run up and so forth. More so there than what you find interior, but still, there's numbers of structures located throughout every state in the country that will - or they do have experience or will take on the job of elevating a structure.

FLATOW: And what's the price range on what that might cost?

BEHM: You know, that's a great question because I think what we're starting to find is that there's more interest in doing this across the country, and I'm seeing that the prices are dropping. But like I said earlier, you kind of have to look at how high you're going to elevate that structure, the size of it and so forth. And so for a residential structure, maybe a single-storey structure, it could be anywhere from $10,000 up to $30,000, depending on the height that you're elevating it.

And then, of course, you know, the highest cost is elevating that first foot. You have to mobilize the contractor. You have to have that equipment out there. So we always advocate to the homeowner that if you're going to elevate your house at all, consider taking it a couple of feet higher because, you know, if you're going to look at going three feet, if you can afford it, try to take it four or five feet.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Dwayne, when they raised up Galveston, they raised up all kinds of buildings, even churches, things like that?

JONES: Absolutely, all kinds of buildings: schools, churches, most of them were residential and I said earlier, most of them are frame buildings but - wood frame. But they're - but they did all kinds of things, yeah. It was really quite remarkable. If you look at the photographs, you can see how people, you know, walked across boarded sidewalks for months as the fill was being brought in around them.

FLATOW: Didn't Galveston get hit pretty hard by Hurricane Ike in 2008 despite being raised up?

JONES: We did. And what happened with Hurricane Ike was it wasn't - did not effect, really, the properties that were closest to the seawall. What happened was that the storm surge was so high that it pushed the water on the backside because of other devices and structures and so forth and pushed it down toward the bayside of the island, which was, of course, the lower end and flooded that. But the stuff along the seawall even three four blocks in almost had no damage at all.

FLATOW: How do you get around that? Is there any way to prevent that?

JONES: For the future, we're talking about a number of things. You know, when you - we've manipulated the coastline and the various things here quite a bit over the last century, so it's changed things even when we were planning with the seawall. So there are a number of different things that we're talking about. They were talking about a concept called the Ike Dike and various other things.

And looking at a number of things that actually the Dutch have done and - which is interesting because they're exactly where we went to - where we went in 1900 in order to look at the seawall and the barges and all that kind of thing. So it's quite an interesting way to - how they're manipulating and dealing with their coastal issues and water just as we are.

FLATOW: So an Ike Dike would be something they might have suggested.

JONES: Similar. The Ike Dike is a similar concept to gates that open and gates that close and so forth.

FLATOW: Randy, what are the hotspots for raising structures today? Where is it happening the most?

BEHM: Generally, it happens right after a disaster occurs, I'd say, in the Gulf Coast area, whether it's up in the Northeast or if it's in the Louisiana, Mississippi area but even - we're seeing throughout the country, in the Midwest, there is a number of communities that try to elevate and - that take it one structure at a time or else we're even seeing a combination of - maybe they'll make it - the structure more water resistant.

I've seen some areas along the Missouri River where they're commercial enterprises and they have parking facilities that maybe are located on the bottom level so if they flood, it just, you know, washes through a parking area. And all the business - the inventory for those businesses are located at a higher elevation.

FLATOW: You know, what we were seeing in the news recently about the flooding in Chicago, the terrible flooding out there. Would they be candidates for being raised?

BEHM: They most definitely would be. In fact, it's something that - I believe there has been a number of engineers with different agencies and even private engineers that have been working up there for a number of years along that Chicago River area, looking to see different things, you know?

We, you know, besides elevating the structures, we could advocate totally to remove the structure from the floodplain if you can, you know? So if you can elevate it and you - if that's possible, then it ought to be that you could remove that structure completely from the floodplain so that you don't have any future damages associated with flooding. So that's something else that we see as areas that are opened up wide.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Talking with Dwayne Jones and Randy Behm about raising up buildings with stilts. I'm going to give you both gentlemen my blank check question, this is like if you could dream big, if you had an unlimited supply of - if you had a blank check to design or engineer any new way of making or retrofitting a shoreline, a town or whatever, what new engineering design or breakthrough would you love to see happen, Randy? What do you need?

BEHM: I think myself - with the severity of floods that we see these days, I would try to open up the areas along the coastline of all of our oceans and try to have kind of a no-build area if possible. I know that's very difficult because our economy is built into these areas over the past few centuries. But if it was a blank check, I'd say let's open up the most high-hazard areas. From there, let's move inland a little bit and do a combination of structural measures where we could berms and floodwalls. And I still would insist that even behind levies that you would elevate a structure or maybe even flood proof it with water-resistant materials.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Dwayne, do you have an answer to that question?

JONES: Well, I'm certainly not an engineer so I don't have all those great scientific thoughts that Randy has. But for - in our perspective, you know, we would really like to see something that really falls into place before we have a hurricane. Generally, we had some type of advance warning, and then that we have the flexibility when we're dealing with these communities to not feel uncomfortable lifting things up and manipulating them a little bit.

There's a lot of hesitation in some places. We're a very historic community with lots of historic properties. And so we really - from our perspective, we really wanted to make sure that we realize that when you live in a coastal area like this, you have to adaptable to your environment. And so we don't want to separate the history from the environment. We didn't do that 100-plus years ago, and we shouldn't do it now.

FLATOW: So that's something that people should think about now that the summer beach season is happening. If they go to the beach, they should be thinking about what as they look around?

JONES: Well, you know, these coastal places - really if we had been thinking about the environment in the 1830s when Galveston was formed, we probably wouldn't have been built on a barrier island. But we did, and there's an economy here, and there's lots of lives, and lots of important things that go on. So it's really not - we really need to be respectful of where we are and learn to adapt the way we look to this.

FLATOW: Gentlemen, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us and good luck to you both.

JONES: Thank you.

FLATOW: We'll see how this works out. Dwayne Jones is executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation in Galveston, Texas. Randy Behm, chairman of the National Nonstructural Flood Proofing Committee that's at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha, Nebraska. That's about all the time we have for today.

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