FEMA Road Expert to Offer Free Seminars to Road Crews

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Release date: 
July 19, 2011
Release Number: 
1995-020

BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Gravel roads that turn into mud in springtime are part of Vermont's lore, but a federal road expert is hoping to change that.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Mitigation Engineer Richard Downer is offering workshops throughout Vermont to teach state and local road crews how to use high-tech products to rebuild roads that will be less susceptible to future rains and flooding.

"We won't be able to eliminate mud season," said Downer, a Shelburne resident and former civil engineering professor at the University of Vermont. "But by using some of these geosynthetic products when rebuilding or repairing roads damaged by floods, we can make them much more resistant to disasters in the future."

Downer is available to visit with local or state road crews at their garages at their request, where he'll share his extensive knowledge of geosynthetics and their use in construction projects.

Geosynthetics -- a $2-billion industry in the U.S. according to the Geosynthetic Materials Association -- are a family of building products made almost entirely from plastics that are used in the construction, public works and road building industries.

They typically take the shape of woven plastic fiber or molded plastic matting that is buried during construction and helps strengthen a road bed, bank, or ditch as well as make it easier for water to drain away, increasing its resistance to being washed out.

Other products, like the Geo-Log -- a barrier placed in areas likely to erode that can catch soil behind it and stabilize an area -- do not linger as an eyesore, but instead are designed to disintegrate within a year.

Geosynthetics have been increasingly used in preventing flood damage. Not only can they make a road last longer, but in some cases mean less gravel has to be used to repair it.

Downer is taking his message to the people who need these products and actually do the installations: road crews. And to make sure he has their attention, he always brings free coffee and doughnuts and meets them first thing in the morning, in their garage.

"I've found that this presentation works a lot better when I give it to road crews in a garage rather than to town managers in a hotel ballroom," he said. "If I can convince these guys to try these products and techniques, or they hear from one of their peers that it works, they'll go to their bosses and say, 'I want this.'"

The challenge is one of cost, Downer explained. Adding geosynthetic materials may make a road last longer, but it also increases the cost. And since gravel is relatively cheap in Vermont, the tried and true method of just putting down more of it is a hard habit to break, he said.

"What we need to do is show that spending a little more now will save them a lot of time -- and money -- down the road," Downer said. "Literally, because you won't be repairing that same trouble spot every few years like you do now."

To learn more, or to request a visit from Downer, please contact him at Richard.downer@dhs.gov or call the FEMA News Desk.

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Last Updated: 
July 16, 2012 - 18:46
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