• The Aguan River near Tocoa, Honduras, often overruns its banks and causes flooding, with catastrophic floods about once every 25 years. MIT students recently traveled to Tocoa to work on a flood early warning system.

    Photo / Alex Bahr (G)

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  • MIT senior Edgar Terrero helps Pilo of Centro Tecnico in Honduras hold up a directional antenna for a test of the radio component of a flood early warning system.

    Photo / Alex Bahr (G)

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Students tackle flooding in Honduras


Eight MIT students--five graduate students and three undergraduates--spent spring break 2005 in Tocoa, Honduras, working on an automated flood early warning system and visiting towns that had been badly damaged by flash flooding in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in October 1998.

The group tested software and radio equipment and installed a river level sensor in the Aguan River in northeastern Honduras. They went as part of the MIT FloodSafe Honduras project, a student-led, mainly volunteer effort sponsored by the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at MIT and the Edgerton Center.

Centro Tecnico San Alonso Rodriguez, a nonprofit technology and education center in Tocoa, hosted graduate students Alex Bahr, ocean engineering; Elizabeth Basha, electrical engineering and computer science (EECS); Kristen Bethke, aeronautics and astronautics; Karla Solheim, urban studies and planning; and Emily Van Ark, marine geology and geophysics. The MIT undergraduates were Kathleen Connolly, a senior in EECS; Nina DeBenedictis, a junior in chemical engineering, and Edgar Terrero, a senior in EECS.

For Bethke, the "greatest part was witnessing and being inspired by the transformational grass-roots work of the Centro Tecnico. They educate Hondurans about natural resource management, building houses with local materials, community organization and water sanitation," she said.

Centro's director, Gines Suarez, "affirms that it really is possible to put big ideas into action, but he shows that humility, patience and good listening skills are essential! His work educates and empowers people all over their region," Bethke said.

"It was really interesting to try to figure out how our MIT-based technological knowledge could work with the Centro's efforts in a useful and productive and sustainable way," said Van Ark.

Once it is installed, the early warning system, or SAT, for Sistema de Alerta Temprana, will consist of five major subsystems: 1) upstream river level sensors, 2) a radio communication system to transmit river data, 3) a central processing center to crunch the numbers and predict flooding based on aggregate river data, 4) alert receiving stations in downstream communities, and 5) power systems for everything.

The FloodSafe mechanism for warning people is then: A) river level sensors measure the height of the river, B) a mathematical model at the central processing center determines when the flood danger threshold has been crossed, C) an automatic radio signal is sent to a community's emergency committee, and D) the committee warns its community by sounding an alarm.

Work on the FloodSafe early warning system began as part of the 2003-2004 D-lab class taught by Amy Smith ('84, S.M. '95), instructor in the Edgerton Center and 2004 MacArthur Fellow.

The FloodSafe trip was funded by MIT IDEAS, the Public Service Center, the Carroll Wilson award, and Thrivent Financial Services for Lutherans.

For more information, visit web.mit.edu/lem/honduras.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 18, 2005 (download PDF).


Topics: Civil and environmental engineering, Global, Students, Volunteering, outreach, public service

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