Giant Inflatable Plugs: Could New Technology Stop Future Subway Flooding?

The Department of Homeland Security is working to develop a giant plug for a giant subway tunnel.

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Giant plugs to prevent the flow of water into the New York City subway tunnels sound like something out of a surrealist sketchbook — or even a child’s imagination — but in just a few years, they could be our best resource to keep transportation networks dry during natural disasters. And after seeing the commuting havoc in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, during which seven subway tunnels and two commuter rail tunnels were flooded, it’s little wonder city officials are hoping they soon become mass-produced.

Workers from the MTA are working with a high-powered team from the Army Corps of Engineers to empty the tunnels of water and get the city’s primary mode of transportation operational. As the city struggles to repair the damage from the flooding, one question has been emerging frequently, even from the mouth of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo: Could such damage have been prevented? If the Department of Homeland Security has its way, in a few years, the answer may well be yes.

(MORE: Sandy’s Destruction: Live Updates on the Superstorm’s Aftermath)

Back in 2007, the Department of Homeland Security began the “Resilient Tunnel Project” with the goal of minimizing the threat of terrorist gas attacks and fires in transit tunnels. But as with all great discoveries, there’s quite possibly a secondary use for the massive tunnel plugs they designed: the technology could keep floodwaters out during natural disasters. They take the form of giant inflatable balloons that fill the circular entrance of any tunnel, sealing it off to any element, whether it’s water or even poisonous gas.

According to CNN, DHS teamed with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, West Virginia University and ILC Dover on the project, which successfully tested a prototype of the enormous inflatable plug in January. The video shows the plug in action, and while it looks like a cross between a Bond film prop and a Claus Oldenberg sculpture, it appears to really work.

However, product development is a slow process, a fact that is particularly frustrating in light of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction. “We’ve proved that these plugs can hold back water,” said Dave Cadogan of ILC Dover to CNN. “I wish we had moved a little bit faster as a team and had gotten this development done.”

DHS project manager John Fortune echoes the sentiment. He told CNN, “This is an experimental prototype. This is something that is probably two years away or so from real-world applications. It would be like asking Apple, ‘Why can’t I have an iPhone 6 now?’ Because it’s somewhere in the lab now. It’s not ready to go.”

While it would be interesting to see the plug in action during a real event, when it comes to natural disasters, we can all hope that there won’t be a next time.

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