Drill prepares UI for flood season


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Humming bulldozers and rising dust surrounded roughly 40 University of Iowa employees as they practiced building flood barriers behind the Studio Arts Building on Tuesday.

In three teams, they assembled a block-long row of HESCO Barriers and filled them with sand. The first team connected the units together in long rows. The second team filled the burlap bags inside using bulldozers and the last team used rods with flat metal squares on the end to pack the sand down.

“This is a learning-curve thing,” said Dan Heater, the director of buildings and landscape services for Facilities Management. “We don’t want to make any mistakes that result in people getting hurt.”

The HESCO units — which have wire mesh exteriors with burlap bags lining the inside — have a similar purpose as sandbags but are easier to set up. Each unit is 4 feet high and contains 1.7 cubic feet of sand when full.

At the moment, the Iowa River is high, though its within its normal operating range. Heater said he did not think the Coralville Reservoir, which overflowed in 2008, was at risk of flooding anytime soon.

Though the UI runs a similar drill every spring, this is the first time employees from UI Facilities Management and University Housing have practiced assembling the HESCO units. The barriers are stored in three locations at the Iowa Advanced Technolgy Laboratories, Mayflower Hall, and the Studio Arts Building.

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The HESCO units cost $450,000, while a supply of sandbags cost another $100,000.

“I will spend what I need to protect the university’s physical assets,” Heater said.

The UI is spending its own money to stockpile flood supplies, Don Guckert, the UI associate vice president for Facilities Management, told The Daily Iowan this week.

While HESCO units are now commonly used in preventing flood damage, they were originally created for military uses and are commonly used around U.S. bases, said Dennis Barkemeyer, a technical representative from HESCO Bastion USA Inc., who was in Iowa City for the drills. In the Midwestern floods of 2008, the HESCO Barriers gained popularity as a means of fighting floods.

HESCO units can also be used to stop mudslides and rebuild wetlands.

Barkemeyer said the barriers are superior to sandbags because they are less labor-intensive, cheaper, faster, and have a longer shelf life. According to HESCO Bastion USA, it takes 10 people around seven hours to build a row of sandbags and two people only 20 minutes to put up a barrier. Barriers can be arranged in a number of ways to help fight floods.

HESCO units also have a uniform size and versatile shape that allows them to be stacked more precisely in different ways.

“You really can’t create a plan of piling sandbags because it’s not a system,” Barkemeyer said. “This is a system.”

Several employees in the drill were present during the 2008 floods.

Jeff Landes, a lead mechanic in University Housing, spent around 120 hours over two weeks sandbagging.

“Two years ago, it was hell, that’s for sure,” he said.

Facilities Management will continue the drill Thursday. The workers will tackle the harder uses of the barriers, and they hope to build them up to 12 feet high.

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