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Flooding is getting worse. Can tech help us deal with it?
Sep 9, 2021

Flooding is getting worse. Can tech help us deal with it?

A climate tech accelerator in Virginia is working with cities to prepare for future floods.

Water infrastructure: It’s boring. Invisible. We only care about it when things go wrong.

Things have been going wrong. Punishing storms have caused catastrophic flooding in New York, Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere.

But water systems are expensive, time-consuming and hard to fix. Technology may provide some relief.

Paul Robinson is executive director of RISE Resilience Innovations, a nonprofit accelerator in Norfolk, Virginia, that helps develop climate tech. He said one of the companies Rise funds is StormSensor, which puts sensors in storm and sewer pipes. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Dr. Paul Robinson smiles for his headshot wearing glasses and a light green collared shirt.
Paul Robinson (courtesy Mike Herron)

Paul Robinson: [Sensors] measure the amount of flow and in which direction it’s flowing and how full the pipe is. And you want to know if your pipe is full or blocked or flowing the wrong way. That’s important for the city to know. They can react to that.

Jed Kim: Well, how hard is it for cities to know what the status of their pipes are?

Robinson: Right now, it’s not easy because the pipes are buried, and there’s no one down there on a regular basis. So you don’t know if sediment is building up, or if there’s a garbage bag and some sticks down there that’s creating a blockage. So having sensors placed within the stormwater pipe, making measurements and reporting them out to the cloud for analysis is pretty important. And that’s what StormSensor’s come in and done in our region. They put 20 sensors that will start to detect the direction of the flow. We’re on a river, and the river is on the coast, and so we’re affected by the high tide. The river and the ocean come up the stormwater system, and when there’s a storm surge, it can go really far up the stormwater system and come out the drains and start to flood the city streets. So knowing that that’s going to happen helps the city understand how their streets are going to be affected. Also, if they can detect part of the system is being clogged with sediment, that helps them send a crew over with a vacuum truck to clean up the blockage so that it doesn’t get any worse.

Kim: Why is an innovation accelerator needed to address these issues?

Robinson: What seems to happen is cities are made up of very, very busy people. These people are running cities, and they really don’t have the time and the wherewithal to look around and see different ways of doing things. So the tendency is to go with what has been done. We’re in the fortunate position here of being able to work with the cities, and they say, “Well, this is what we need. If you can get someone to figure it out, we want to use it.” So we de-risk that with the money we provide the companies to test new technologies. So it’s quite attractive for the city,

Kim: When there is a new technological solution, what’s the market like for it? And are governments willing to pay?

Robinson: So those are two different questions. We only fund companies that provide us with a business plan and a business model that we can assess as viable. They have to have a way of making money — one of the things that we offer the companies is something called a revenue-based loan. So we want the company to be successful because we get paid back out of the company’s revenues. We want to make sure that the company has a growth path, has the skills and knowledge in-house to be able to run a business and grow a business and scale it up to go from our region here up to New York City, Boston and Philadelphia, and these markets. So yes, in the end, the cities will be the customers or parts of the process that we help the companies with is finding other customers.

Kim: Are there any challenges with getting governments to adopt new solutions?

Robinson: Yeah, of course. Especially with the longer term projects. And that’s one of the really interesting parts that we have to face. Because we have these new ideas, and some of the ideas are gathering better data and, and providing better information to cities, and some of them are for things like how to do a flood wall better than perhaps the flood wall telescopes away from sight when you don’t need it, and then it comes back up when you do need it. So it’s hard to go, with that idea, from the lab into a piece of critical infrastructure without the appropriate testing. No city is going to buy the thing without it having been run out and being demonstrated and tested on someone else’s wall. We face that every so often that we try and help a technology get to the point where it can be considered by the city or by the Army Corps in its projects, and that’s a fairly long pathway. We’re trying to find a way along with some projects right now, but, in the long term, it could really pay off.

Related Links: More insight from Jed Kim

You can read up on the StormSensor tech that Robinson and RISE helped fund. It’s the one that installs lower-cost monitors that wirelessly transmit information about water flow in pipes. The Washington Post has an article about it as part of its Climate Solutions coverage. If you need proof that being able to manage water flow is cost effective, it mentions that by using sensors, Detroit could handle 100 million more gallons of water by optimizing when to open and close valves and gates. Building storage for that much water would cost $500 million.

The team at In Deep has made an hourlong radio documentary on one town’s struggle with the ravages of climate change. Last year, over just nine months, Lake Charles, Louisiana, was hit with four federally declared disasters: two hurricanes, an ice storm and a historic flood. The team took a look at a year in the life of residents there, the struggles they faced with rebuilding, getting help and insurance payouts — only to get hit again and again. It’s a sobering look at what could be coming for a lot more people. I used to work with the folks at In Deep and am incredibly proud of the work they’ve done. Check it out. And then, maybe listen to the first season of their podcast.

It can be tough and confusing work for towns and cities to figure out what to do about flooding risk. TechCrunch says there’s some new software that helps them figure out where properties are out of compliance with flood-protection requirements. It also helps them with processing federal flood insurance documentation. The founders of Forerunner — that’s the software — say so far 33 communities are using it.

Finally, it behooves me to mention that there are many, many problems associated with outdated flood zone maps, especially in the face of continuing climate change. Last year, the First Street Foundation made headlines when it showed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood zone maps vastly underestimated the numbers of properties at risk of flooding. Instead of 8.7 million properties, First Street says the real number is 14.6 million and growing fast. The Poynter Institute says journalists share a lot of responsibility for disclosing the problems of rebuilding in problem areas.

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