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Glancing Blows From Storms Test ALDOT’s Readiness

Mon October 06, 2008 - Southeast Edition
Kerry Lynn Kirby

The sky was clear, blue and sunny, giving no hint of the killer storms churning a few hundred miles south in the Gulf of Mexico. But as soon as hurricanes Gustav and Ike made their paths into the Gulf this summer, the Alabama Department of Transportation started implementing the storm-readiness measures they plan and practice for year-round, said Nick Amberger, ALDOT’s ninth division maintenance engineer.

Though both storms ended up tracking well away from Alabama’s Gulf coast —Gustav made landfall Sept. 1 in Louisiana and Ike made landfall Sept. 13 in Texas —the hurricanes kicked up high waves and raised coastal water levels 4 to 5 ft. above normal high tides, which kept ALDOT crews working around the clock for several days in Mobile and Baldwin counties, Amberger said.

“We basically had to have employees out there 24 hours a day. I don’t think I could be prouder of the effort those folks put forth. You couldn’t ask for a more dedicated group of people,” he said.

Managers were on call, with many sleeping in their offices, to coordinate efforts and ensure everything ran smoothly.

Both Gustav and Ike wreaked havoc on the AL 193 causeway linking Dauphin Island to mainland Mobile County, Amberger said.

During high tides, the storm-heightened waves were cresting at 5 to 6 ft. and wind gusts of 40 to 50 mph brought water and debris onto the roadway, forcing ALDOT to close off the only crossing to the island and enforce the barricades to keep drivers out of harm’s way.

As soon as the tide rolled out enough that crews could safely work, they hit the road to clear all sorts of debris, ranging from riprap to dead vegetation to large chunks of driftwood to nail-studded pieces of piers ripped apart by the storms, Amberger said.

To get traffic back on the road as soon as possible, the debris was cleared to the side for hauling away later, he said. For the most part, they were able to use a motorgrader to put the riprap back into place.

With school in session and residents needing to go to and from school, work and their normal business, ALDOT set up shuttles across the Dauphin Island causeway whereby a pilot vehicle in constant communication with other ALDOT employees led traffic at a controlled speed along a safe route, Amberger said.

Both hurricanes also caused problems on the causeway that runs alongside Interstate 10 over Mobile Bay, connecting Mobile and Baldwin counties.

Although I-10 provides an alternate route over the bay, the U.S. 90/98 causeway shares the traffic load with the interstate bridge and is very important to keeping it running smoothly, so ALDOT crews worked to keep the causeway open as long as possible between closings.

“We’d leave it open as long as we could to allow as much traffic to use it for as long as it possibly could,” Amberger said.

As with the Dauphin Island causeway, crews had to work around the clock in a cycle of closing off the roadway and keeping motorists away when the waters surged to an unsafe level, then clearing away debris and bay residue as quickly as possible after the waters receded to get the causeway back open.

The storm brought up “anything and everything that was in the bay,” he said. When waters receded from the Mobile Bay causeway, along with various debris the bay water left a muddy, slimy buildup.

ALDOT had workers pulling 12- to 14-hour shifts around the clock for three days during each of the storms. They had to have crews with barricades to close the roads, workers to stage equipment for cleanup as soon as the tide rolled back enough to safely work, crews to do the cleanup, using both heavy equipment and old-fashioned shoveling, and crews to handle the traffic flow once the roadways could be reopened.

“We knew the next 24-hour cycle, we’re still having a high tide and a storm surge,” said Amberger, who noted a few other areas were affected by the storm surge to a lesser extent, including AL 182 along the Gulf shore, a 2-mi. section of Fort Morgan Road in Baldwin County and an area of AL 163 along Dog River in Mobile County.

Equipment used in the hurricane clean-up included a Daewoo Mega 200V rubber tire front-end loader, John Deere 410J backhoe, a LeeBoy 685 motorgrader, and Sterling M8500, GMC TC7H064 and International 4300 dump trucks.

There were 80 to 110 people working around the clock, Amberger said.

ALDOT didn’t have to call in outside contractors to deal with either storm, he said, though maintenance crews were brought in from the department’s District 3 office in Evergreen to relieve some local workers.

Sounding the Alert

While hurricanes Gustav and Ike both hit west of the Alabama coast, the uncertainty of where a storm will ultimately make landfall requires ALDOT to put its storm-readiness plan into action any time a tropical storm comes into the Gulf, Amberger said.

The department goes on heavy alert to make sure the transportation department offices all have enough fuel to respond appropriately to a major hurricane making landfall in the state, he said.

The shop and field guys make sure all the equipment is working properly and is lubricated and that backup equipment is in place to do the job in case the first line fails, Amberger said.

That equipment includes everything from backhoes, motorgraders and dump trucks to barricades and variable message signs to chainsaws and shovels, he said.

The redundancies extend to communication, with both primary and backup systems in place, Amberger said.

When a tropical storm enters the Gulf and the Emergency Management Agency comes online, ALDOT sends representatives so there’s a constant, direct line of communication, he said.

“Communication is, I think, paramount, so they can communicate what they’re seeing in the field so we can respond appropriately,” said Amberger.

ALDOT also stays in communication with the public through both a call center to help evacuees and a constantly updated Internet site with information on road closings.

Meanwhile, ALDOT has to closely monitor the hurricane’s track to determine if it will be necessary to implement the reverse-laning of Interstate 65 to allow for mass evacuation north, said Tony Harris, special assistant to the state’s transportation director.

The reverse-laning has been done twice in Alabama, for hurricanes Dennis and Ivan, Harris said.

They need to start preparations days out from landfall in case reverse-laning is needed, as it requires about 200 transportation department employees and about 120 state troopers, and can even involve the National Guard, if necessary, he said.

The ALDOT employee they put at the start of the contra-flow lanes — Ken Cush — comes in from Alexander City, Ala., and is in charge of traffic on Talladega Superspeedway Race Weekend, when they reverse Highway 77 coming on and off Interstate 20 to handle the huge crowds, Harris said.

The crossover on Interstate 65 is just north of the Mobile River Delta Bridge and just south of AL 225, and is basically lanes constructed to allow traffic to be shifted to the normally southbound side of the interstate without interfering with the flow of traffic on northbound I-65, Amberger said.

Evacuees from Alabama’s Gulf Coast use the crossover to get over to the new northbound lanes while the traffic from Florida’s panhandle is routed onto the normally northbound side of the divided interstate, he said.

As part of ALDOT’s year-round preparation, planners come up with various scenarios that throw a monkey wrench into the works so they can be ready to deal with problems, Amberger said.

“We have to adjust. We have to be flexible. That’s the biggest thing,” he said.

Another extremely important part of preparing for a hurricane is to make sure ALDOT employees are preparing their homes and family for the storm while staying fresh for the long shifts ahead, Harris said.

A new training and emergency operations center at the Mobile ALDOT complex is coming online this fall and will make it easy for crews to stay fresh, clean, well-fed and in communication both during and after hurricanes hit, Amberger said.

In the past, they had to make do by having ALDOT employees camping out in various buildings around the complex, he said. While it will be used most of the year as a training facility, the precast reinforced steel building was constructed to withstand 200 mph and be fully self-contained so that workers can ride out the storm there and use the site for showers, meals and sleeping as well as a central point for communications and operations.

As hurricane season runs through November, the facility will be available for use in the event of a late-season storm this year, Amberger said. And ALDOT will stay vigilant in the event a tropical storm affects the Gulf.

But even after the season ends, the planning and preparation will continue.

“We’re in the hurricane business year round. It might get a little slower in the winter months, but we’re still thinking about it,” Amberger said. CEG

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