Texas A&M University-Kingsville

A&M-Kingsville, TxDOT research team examines Hurricane Katrina, Ivan damage to improve coastal bridge performance

KINGSVILLE - August 04, 2006

Contact: Jason Marton
jason.marton@tamuk.edu or 361-593-4143

As weather forecasts call for Tropical Depression Chris to enter the Gulf of Mexico this week, a special joint research project between Texas A&M University-Kingsville and the Texas Department of Transportation becomes all the more important.

Drs. Francisco Aguíñiga, Hector Estrada, Joseph Sai and Pat Leelani, professors of civil engineering at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, have partnered with Jon Holt and Michelle Romage of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to study design methods for bridges that would allow them to withstand hurricane-force waves.

To understand the gravity of the study, one need only look back at the recent past.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina blasted through the city of New Orleans, taking more than 1,300 lives and leaving tens of thousands of residents displaced from the worst civil engineering disaster in American history. Among the wreckage was the damaged I-10 bridge, stretching over 5 miles across Lake Pontchartrain. The main route between Slidell and New Orleans for interstate commerce and commuting workers, the I-10 bridge’s damage seriously affected traffic, mobility and the shipment of supplies during the critical two months following the storm. Two more bridges, one on U.S. Highway 90 across Biloxi Bay, Miss., and another across St. Louis Bay, La., were almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

When Hurricane Ivan moved through Pensacola, Fla., in September 2004, a similar situation occurred. Ivan took the Escambia Bay Bridge with it, causing traffic to detour 130 miles out of its way.

The damage resulted from “wave loading” – the pulsed, wavelike stress applied to man-made structures. This is the focus of the A&M-Kingsville/TxDOT project, “Synthesis of Wave Load Design Methods for Coastal Bridges.”

The group project, funded by TxDOT in May 2005, was inspired by the Escambia Bay Bridge situation. The project goal is to gather information currently available about coastal bridges to identify successful design methods not currently used in the country. This is the first time that TxDOT has funded research looking at wave load forces on coastal structures.

While the researchers were collecting facts from Escambia Bay and existing literature last summer, new disasters in August 2005 would show just how relevant the study was. First Hurricane Katrina, then Hurricane Rita brought about waves that wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast.

A&M-Kingsville’s research team made a reconnaissance trip to Louisiana’s damaged I-10 and the U.S. Highway 90 St. Louis Bay Bridge. The trip provided valuable first-hand knowledge of how the waves struck the bridge and what design elements failed.

Specifically, the team considers the effect of waves breaking on any portion of the structure; the effect of uplift forces caused by shoaling waves beneath the structure; wave run-up striking any portion of the structure; and wave-induced drag and inertial forces.

There are five ongoing national studies looking at the effect of wave loads on bridges, with each focusing on different elements. Dr. Max Sheppard, professor at the University of Florida, is carrying out most of the studies with funding from the Federal Highway Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation. A&M-Kingsville’s study is one of three funded by state Departments of Transportation.

Many of these research groups have been in contact with each other, most notably at the National Wave Force Symposium that was held in Washington, D.C. in December 2005.

The Texas A&M-Kingsville study is scheduled to be completed at the end of this month. By its conclusion, the study is scheduled to have an electronic database compiling bridge storm design parameters. In addition, there will be a plan of action made to develop nonexistent design methods for bridges under storm surge forces.

TxDOT project manager Holt affirmed the importance of the project for the State of Texas. “ Hurricanes Ivan and Rita devastated parts of the Gulf Coast and exposed a previously unidentified weakness in the design of some coastal highway structures. No codified design methodologies exists which govern the engineering analysis of bridge superstructures (beams and slabs) subject to wave loading. This project is the first step by TxDOT to try and define our needs and identify available technologies to develop these design methods.”

Principal Investigator Aguíñiga said that the goal of this project is to condense the information relevant to the topic in one document. “That way people who continue research along this venue have enough information to choose the correct and economical path. The terminal goal is to reduce the vulnerability of coastal bridges subjected to the action of wave loads. Pondering the information obtained so far, we can say that it will take several years and a fair amount of work to reach that goal.”

Aguíñiga indicated that p participation of civil engineering undergraduate student Kevin Matakis has been instrumental to the project. Aguíñiga said that Jon Holt’s flexibility, support, and input have greatly aided the project, and appreciates the efforts of the research team.

Team member Estrada, professor and chair of the department of civil and architectural engineering, said the coastal bridges wave loading project is the most exciting one he’s ever worked on. He notes how important the findings of the study are for the many bridges running up and down the Texas Coast, such as the Queen Isabella Causeway at Port Isabel and the nearby JFK Causeway in Corpus Christi.

“The JFK is a valuable hurricane evacuation route for us,” said Estrada. “The only alternate route off the (Padre) Island is the Port Aransas Ferry, which has to be shut down when storm or tidal conditions exist. That makes it critical that roadways like this one could withstand forces caused by a hurricane.”

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