Miles Of Flood Control, Minus The Sandbags

May 29, 2011

Hesco is becoming a household name in flood-prone areas along the Mississippi River — and for good reason. So-called Hesco baskets are holding back the high water from hospitals, power substations and residential areas.

Hesco baskets, named after the company that makes them, don't appear high-tech. They look like wire trash cans lined with fabric. They come in 15-foot-long sections that collapse down to 4 inches tall. One 18-wheeler can haul in a mile of flood protection. Pop them up, fill them with sand, and two people can fill the equivalent of 1,500 sandbags in 20 minutes.

National Guard crews have been working round the clock, Sgt. Tehdrick Burton says. "We have gotten these down pretty well. It's almost second nature with these."

In south Louisiana, Hesco baskets stretch for miles along low-lying roads, around schools and atop existing levees.

"It's much easier and quicker," says Duvall Arthur, the emergency preparedness director for St. Mary Parish. "You can cover so much more territory with these. You clip them together, you fill them with sand, and you're through with them."

Some of the Hescos are being reused from Hurricane Katrina. That recycling helps make them cheaper than sandbags. The Army Corps of Engineers found the baskets cost as much as $5,000 less per thousand feet.

Making Sure The Baskets Hold

Dennis Barkemeyer is HESCO's senior technical representative. He's been in the field since January, following floodwaters from Canada all the way to Amelia, La. At the same time, the company's production facility in nearby Hammond has been operating seven days a week — though workers did get a few hours off for Mother's Day.

With an estimated 10 miles of wire baskets in St. Mary Parish alone, Barkemeyer uses a golf cart to drive along them. The vehicle is courtesy of the local country club.

"I don't mind walking a few miles, but this being month five of flood-fighting, it's nice to have a little help from the golf course," he says. Barkemeyer watches for tilted baskets or connections that haven't been properly locked down.

"Y'all just going on top and to the bottom?" he calls out to one crew. "Thank you."

Ninety-Nine Percent Isn't Good Enough

National Guard troops are accustomed to the technology. Many have used Hesco baskets in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they fortify forward operating bases. When they're employed to hold back water, however, Barkemeyer says attention to detail is critical.

"If we are 99-percent successful here, we lose," he says. "So unless you're perfect on your efforts, it's non-success."

So far, the Hesco baskets have impressed emergency officials. In Vidalia, La., a pyramid of Hescos withstood 8 feet of the swollen Mississippi River.

Now that he's gotten his hands on some, Arthur says he'd be happy to fold up the Hescos for another rainy day.

"I know the Corps bought them," he says. "I'm sure they're going to want them back, but we're hoping to keep some of them to help us in the future."

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