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Carolina Bridge Hustles to Close Up Gap Left by Irene

Mon October 03, 2011 - Southeast Edition
Eric Olson

Crews are frantically working around the clock to erect a temporary bridge along a stretch of North Carolina Highway 12, the only major highway along the state’s Outer Banks, after Hurricane Irene cut a breach in the thin strip of land that separates Pamlico Sound from the Atlantic Ocean.

Orangeburg, S.C.-based Carolina Bridge is running crews night and day to build the metal bridge across the more than 100-ft. (30 m) breach on Pea Island, located just a few miles north of Rodanthe.

The state DOT hopes to have the bridge, located within the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, open to two-way traffic sometime during the first week of October.

Mother Nature, though, is determined to make it difficult on Carolina Bridge to meet that goal.

Inclement weather at the job site over the last weeks of September has put the bridge work behind schedule, said Richard Nickel, Carolina Bridge’s project manager on the Pea Island breach.

“Every time it rains or there is a tropical storm – or the nor’easter that we had last weekend that cost us four days of work – our time constraint gets pushed,” Nickel said on the afternoon of Sept. 23. “There is a bunch of rain out there today and it could slow us down because we have a concrete pour scheduled for this afternoon that’s a little iffy. Hopefully, weather-permitting, we will be done in another 12 days or so.”

Crews were able to pour concrete footings that day at one of the substructures, known as bent 3, supporting one end of the bridge span as Carolina Bridge had hoped. In addition, cranes drove eight piles at nearby bent 2 that same afternoon.

Despite a weekend of more steady rain, all 12 piles at bent 3 were completed, while an additional 88 ft. (26.8 m) of the bridge truss was put together and the bridge was launched about 100 ft. to the south.

Still, the bad weather caused Carolina Bridge to add a second night crew to the project on Sept. 26 to make up for the time lost and as a hedge against more rain forecast through the end of the next week.

The frenetic work schedule on the temporary bridge is due to the fact that around 5,000 people live on the island, most of whom rely on the area’s tourist trade for their livelihood, and residents and tourists alike can only get around via N.C. Highway 12.

“[The NCDOT)] called us on a Thursday, we began designing the bridge work on Friday and we started moving in on the following Wednesday with no finished design,” added Nickel. “They just kept feeding us design information as we went.”

North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue announced the building of the bridge on Sept. 2, just days after the hurricane swept across the Outer Banks on the morning of Aug. 27. The 100-ft-wide breach in the N.C. 12 roadway was one of several along the chain of barrier islands as a result of the storm, but the only one that was too large to simply be filled in with sand.

The 662-ft. (201 m) temporary bridge is estimated to cost the state about $2.6 million. Factoring in the rebuilding of the road on either side of the breach, as well as at several other damage points along the Outer Banks, pushes the total cost of fixing N.C. 12 to more than $10 million, all of which is being paid for by Federal Emergency funds.

Using a modular design that allows for a quick construction, the bridge was manufactured by Mabey Bridge Ltd., based in Baltimore, and moved to the work site in 30 truckloads. Its strength and durability means that the bridge can stay in place for as long as it takes for the NCDOT to fund, design and build a permanent span across the new inlet.

Heavy trucks carrying pieces of the bridge left Baltimore on Sept. 6 for the trip south to Pea Island. A steady convoy continued to haul pieces to the site for several days. The bridge is being assembled on the north side of the breach and then hoisted into place by cranes.

Additional materials and equipment to be used at bent 1 are transported to the south side of the breach via the Stumpy Point ferry, which docks at Rodanthe.

In order to get ready to move and place those modular bridge sections, the Carolina Bridge crew, which numbers more than 50 workmen, had to drive a total of 82 piles, each 75 ft. (22.8 m) deep, to support the bridge top deck.

They accomplished that using two Link-Belt 218 SHL 110-ton (99 t) lattice crawler cranes that they bought from Pinnacle Crane, a division of Carolina Tractor, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C.

“We use those cranes primarily for driving pile,” Nickel said. “We use them on a lot of our projects and they are real workhorses.”

He added that between his company and one of its subcontractors on this job there are a total of six cranes working 24/7 to get it completed on time.

Carolina Bridge is a family-run business started by Nickel’s grandfather, Dick Nickel, in 1971. Richard Nickel and his brother, Dan, serve as vice presidents with the firm and employ around 40 people. The majority of their projects are in North and South Carolina, many of which are bridges over water.

In 2006, according to Dan Nickel, the company replaced seven bridges along the Ocracoke Island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

“We are currently working on a 3,000-foot bridge in Belhaven, across the sound from [the Pea Island replacement] bridge,” Dan Nickel added. “As a matter of fact, a lot of the crew on the replacement bridge job was brought over from the Belhaven bridge.”

Despite a few new wrinkles, the building of the temporary bridge on the Outer Banks is just another in a long line of similar bridge projects that Carolina Bridge has staked its reputation upon, according to Richard Nickel.

“I guess that the thing that is special about this job is that we have had to start from scratch and move on to wide open as fast as possible,” he said.

“Other than seemingly having no time to plan it and working around the clock, it isn’t much different than other jobs,” he added with a weary laugh. “We give our crews a lot of credit for being out here at all hours of the day and night. They have done a fantastic job.” CEG

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