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Record Rainfall Destroys Section of New York’s I-88

Mon July 10, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Mary S. Yamin-Garone

“Rain, rain, go away!” Or so said thousands of New Yorkers.

The recent deluge that washed out the nation’s capital and has been blamed for four deaths in other states, cut across New York June 27 and 28, leaving death and destruction in its path. The area around the city of Binghamton was hardest hit.

The June 27 rainfall was record breaking. It was the most rain ever received in a 24-hour period at the Binghamton airport, according to the National Weather Service. A total of 4.05 in. of rain fell that day, breaking the previous one-day record of 3.57 in. set on June 11, 2001.

The drenching rains washed out a stretch of Interstate 88. The collapsed highway claimed the lives of two truck drivers. David Swingle of Waverly, was heading east on I-88 at 6:20 a.m. Wednesday, June 28, when a culvert washed out, leaving a 50-ft. hole in all four lanes of the highway. The body of the second driver, who was traveling west, was believed to have been swept into Carr’s Creek in Sidney and then into the Susquehanna River.

The storms also flooded homes, closed roads, cut power and forced hundreds of people across upstate New York to evacuate. There were even reports of a house floating down the Susquehanna.

Restoration Plans

Most of I-88 in the Southern Tier reopened two days after being closed due to flooding throughout the region. The collapsed segment remains closed between Exit 9 at Sidney and Exit 10 in Unadilla, both in Delaware County. Route 7, which runs parallel to I-88 on the north, is serving as the detour route around that closure for all but oversized and overweight vehicles. The 7.5-mi. detour takes approximately 20 minutes. Temporary traffic signals will be added along the route to improve traffic flow.

New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) Commissioner Thomas J. Madison Jr. announced that work has started on permanently reconstructing the damaged section. He is hopeful the highway will fully reopen in the fall.

Emergency structural contractor C.P. Ward of Rochester, NY, has been employed to restore the four-lane highway. A new pipe-like structure will replace the culvert that washed out on June 28, during torrential rains. The washout created a 150-ft. gap in the highway that killed two truckers.

A multi-disciplinary team of engineering, design, materials and construction experts has been organized to work with the contractor regarding clean up plans, securing the flooded interstate site and developing design details for the highway repair. Survey crews have started removing the damaged culvert pipe and shoring up the area to ensure a safe work environment.

Engineers are looking at using a temporary structure that would enable the interstate to reopen while working on a permanent replacement. To expedite the project, the design and construction phases will overlap. This will allow design plans to be implemented when each phase is completed, rather than waiting until all plans are finished. The culvert will be prefabricated in sections and installed on site instead of being constructed on location as a single piece that would require multiple curings of its poured concrete.

Erosion Cited

While the exact cause of the collapse has yet to be determined, speculation abounds. A 2004 DOT inspection of the collapsed culvert found “severe erosion” beneath the end left concrete slope paving, exposing the outside of the pipe from below the concrete for the full slope length. The DOT documents also noted settling, indicated by “a noticeable dip in the driving lanes over the culvert” and “full width transverse cracking” in the concrete pavement slabs approaching and over the culvert.

The August 2004 inspection also showed an “insignificant” number of missing and broken bolts in the steel culvert. State inspectors graded the 33-year-old culvert an overall 5 — or good — on a scale of 1 to 7. A rating of three or below indicates the culvert needs some type of work to bring it up to standard. The culvert was due to be inspected again this year. It could not be immediately determined if the erosion had been addressed since the previous inspection.

Thomas O’Rourke, professor of civil and environmental engineering of Cornell University, said minor or moderate corrosion is common and “not necessarily a major concern.” As a safety precaution, he said, culverts — such as the one that collapsed — are often equipped with “extra thickness.” It is not unusual to experience loss of those sections over time, he added.

Culverts more than 20 ft. in diameter are inspected every two years by DOT. The one that collapsed had a diameter of 30 ft. and was one of 1,809 subject to inspection.

David Hartgen, professor of transportation studies of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, said, “A lot of questions could be posed” about the I-88 collapse, but the rain may simply have produced “a flood greater than the culvert could withstand.”

State officials said the culvert might not have been able to withstand the amount of water that fell in the area, no matter what its rating.

State of Emergency

New York’s governor George E. Pataki has declared a State of Emergency for the 13 upstate counties affected by the flooding. He also has announced a major flood relief package and sought federal disaster assistance for the counties. President George Bush declared New York’s Broome, Chenango, Delaware, Herkimer, Montgomery, Otsego, Schoharie, Sullivan and Ulster counties federal disaster areas. This declaration brings with it money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

NYSDOT crews have been working around the clock to restore service to flooded roads and bridges in these counties. Motorists are advised to visit before traveling for the most up-to-date highway information in the affected areas.

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