The Block Island Ferry operators hadn’t seen anything like it since they began ferrying passengers over from the mainland to the vacation island by boat through Narragansett Bay, not even for the famous Hurricane of 1938.
Transporting cars and motorcycles for island visitors to drive? Sure, they do that every day. Carrying bikes and scooters to maneuver the winding roads? Of course, that’s the business.
But a working fleet of several large excavators, a bulldozer, a roller, front-end loaders and trucks, heavy iron driven down from Palmer, Mass. to the creaking piers of Newport, then 12 mi. to sea? No, sir; not ever.
Northern Construction Service LLC drove the equipment from its yard to the Newport docks to board the ship after the company won a bidding process. Northern was hired by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) to restore about $3.1 million of assessed damage to roads and beaches ripped up by Hurricane Sandy as it cut a path of destruction through southern New England.
It was a unique start to a job that began in October, a few days after the storm caused billions of dollars of damage in several oceanfront states along the Atlantic Seaboard, and ended on time and on budget in late December.
“The equipment did come over on the ferry,” said Eric Rahkonen, who managed the project for Northern Construction. “That process was difficult, as we were required to work around the regular passenger ferry trips. This led to us operating in early morning trips or late-in-the-day trips.”
Damage to the Island
Manhattan Island and Long Island were greatly damaged by Sandy and Staten Island virtually destroyed; the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., was turned into kindling and 500,000 people lost power in New Jersey alone, and this little comma of land 12 mi. off the coast of the Rhode Island mainland suffered a smaller, but relatively devastating fate.
It is tiny by island standards (the smallest town in the smallest state), but large in its draw of tourists to and from Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and beyond. New Shoreham is the town that is coextensive with Block Island, with a population of slightly more than 1,050 residents, and an estimated 65,000 annual visitors who seek its almost 11 sq. mi. of beauty.
The Narragansett tribe called it “Little God’s Island.” A recent travel magazine lauded it as “One of the Twelve Great Places in the Western Hemisphere.” There are 17 mi. of coastal beaches, 30 mi. of walking trails and an amazing 365 fresh water ponds, virtually all churned up by the high tides and storm surges of Sandy.
Daylong winds at a steady 70 mph hit the island, bringing gusts that reached 117 mph downed trees and threw debris across the entire span.
One restaurant, the popular Ballard’s Inn — a hub for yearly tourists — was washed out by waves and sand after just finishing some $200,000 of improvements. Beaches and the meandering roads that wind around the resort spot were ripped up or flattened completely. Two major roads — Corn Neck Road and Spring Street — were chunked to bits.
“Corn Neck Road amazes me,” New Shoreham Town Manager Nancy Dodge told the Block Island Times newspaper. “It’s flat to the beach.”
A dock in Old Harbor, recently built by the U.S. Army Corps of engineers was found warped like a bow.
Northern Ferries Immediately
RIDOT bid the repair project a few days after the Oct. 28 and 29 storm.
“RIDOT accepted the bid after verifying all the proper information was included. RIDOT’s response was quick,” said Project Manager Rahkonen. “A pre-bid meeting was held to discuss the damaged areas and repair expectations prior to the bid. An on-site visit was held after we were notified of being the low bidder.”
Rahkonen was chosen by his company to head this project because of his previous experience in marine construction and with emergency repair situations. Rahkonen headed a similar operation in Massachusetts in 2011. Hurricane Irene had devastated Route 2 and MassDOT also chose Northern Construction Services to work on emergency repairs and reconstruction.
Rahkonen led a crew of between 10 and 30 individuals operating several large excavators, bulldozers, rollers, front-end loaders and trucks to repair multiple roadways after Sandy caused severe flooding and immediate erosion.
The sight of flattened beaches and crushed roads were nothing new to his crew.
“Many of the men working on site have extensive experience dealing with difficult situations. The majority of them were a part of the extensive rebuilding of Route 2 emergency repairs after Hurricane Irene,” said Rahkonen.
The New Shoreham project consisted of dune restoration, slope repairs on failed roadways, full depth roadway reconstruction (warm mix asphalt paving), removing damaged guardrails and replacing them with new guardrails, seeding and plantings,” said Rahkonen. “The roadways were shored up by establishing a proper rip rap toe for the rest of the slope to build from.”
The Block Island work was a parallel project for Northern. At the very same time, emergency repairs were being done by the company in Falmouth, Mass., on Cape Cod, for similar storm damages.
“The Town of Falmouth, Massachusetts, lost portions of seawall as well as roadway slope failures. The previous year, Northern repaired a six-mile stretch of Route 2 in Florida, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires. Portions of the highway slid more than 70 feet into a river below, and then we did a two-mile stretch of Route 2 located in North Adams, Massachusetts, so tackling Block Island was familiar territory,” said Rahkonen.
Around the Clock Shifts
His crews were given the assignment by the state to repair approximately 1,800 ft. (549 m) of highway along Corn Neck Road and damaged Spring Street in the Old Harbor section of the town. They worked seven days a week, 12 to 14 hour-days, through difficult marine, salt water conditions in order to complete the work on time and on budget in December.
“The people that lived on the Island were very helpful and grateful,” added Rahkonen. “Many of the crew have been out to the island during the summer for vacations and were familiar with the area we had to work in. They had traveled those same roads.”
Rahkonen’s brother Alex Rahkonen was the superintendent with him on New Shoreham. He played a vital role in overseeing the onsite day-to-day operations. Alex also had been responsible for the nighttime Route 2 emergency repairs (the ones caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011). The brothers are sons of one of the owners, John Rahkonen, a co-founder of the company.
Northern had been the recipient of the American Public Works Association’s annual award for disaster construction in the past, a clear indicator of why RIDOT, MassDOT and other municipal authorities have hired them so often to fix disasters.
Northern Construction Service LLC has specialized in bridge construction, marine construction and reconstruction, concrete and utility work and site work since 1996. With current projects throughout New England and in New York founders John L. DiVito and John Rahkonen have grown the company steadily with an excellent reputation for quality work and responsible ownership.
Like RIDOT, their clients often include federal, state and municipal agencies, along with private industrial and utility companies. The company employs 80 people and maintains two offices, in Weymouth and Palmer, Mass.
A portion of the project’s costs on Block Island were funded by the United States Department of Transportation, which included $3 million in quickly-released funds by Oct. 30 in disaster relief. This grant coincided with millions of dollars released to help RIDOT and private vendors shore up substantial damage caused by Sandy along the southwestern coast of Rhode Island, particularly in the towns of Westerly and a badly damaged seawall and sidewalk on Ocean Road in Narragansett, where more than 100 homes were split apart along the beaches, which were seriously eroded.
“The restoration of our roads and other infrastructure following Hurricane Sandy remains a high priority,” said Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, work that continues through the winter. “Northern did a great job of doing the work on time and on budget, just as we asked. We are pleased to remain on the fast-track in getting these repairs started and completed in as short a time frame as possible.”
Three other ongoing state repair projects include Ocean Drive in Newport, Poppasquash Road in Bristol and Conanicus Road in Jamestown.
“We are pleased by the dedication and cooperation shown by our contractors on these projects to get repairs started and completed quickly,” said RIDOT’s Michael Lewis.
For more information, call 413-636-8411 or visit www.NorthernConstruction .com. CEG
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