With two major bridges destroyed and $1 billion in infrastructure damages, restoring safety and mobility was both a challenge and an emotional journey for the division office.
"The destruction was horrendous—roadways and bridges destroyed, landmark buildings gone, boats and casino barges deposited throughout the area, and debris everywhere," recalls Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Mississippi Division Administrator Andrew H. Hughes, speaking of the wreckage left by Hurricane Katrina.
Jeffrey A. Schmidt, the division office's field operations team leader, adds, "Seeing the total devastation the first time was unbelievable. Buildings were heaped on top of buildings; boats and trucks were overturned."
Hughes and Schmidt are referring to their first impressions during a reconnaissance tour of Mississippi's coastal counties 24 hours after Hurricane Katrina roared through the State on August 29, 2005. What they found were highways either destroyed or piled high with rubble. Most main roads had one makeshift lane open, permitting only emer-gency vehicles around damaged pavement. Hughes and Schmidt were permitted access to assess damage to the highway infrastructure, but even so the two FHWA officials frequently had to detour onto residential streets just to get through.
Their first destination on the coast was Interstate 10, a major transportation link that is heavily used by long-haul trucks. Several spans of the eastbound I–10 bridge over the Pascagoula River were heavily damaged, leaving the critical eastbound interstate route out of devastated New Orleans impassable. Nearby on U.S. 90, the Saint Louis Bay and Biloxi Bay bridges were totally destroyed.
But this is getting ahead of the story. What follows is a recounting of the Hurricane Katrina Emergency Relief Program efforts through the eyes of the FHWA Mississippi Division.
Weathering the Storm
Before the hurricane hit, as Katrina was still bearing down on the coast, Hughes had most of the division employees report to the Jackson office to prepare for the storm. The division office is about 140 miles (225 kilometers), as the crow flies, from the Mississippi coastal towns of Biloxi and Gulfport. In addition to battening down the hatches, the division leadership prepared the field staff for emergency relief work by reviewing FHWA's Emergency Relief Manual, assessing anticipated needs for damage inspection teams, and coordinating with the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT).
The power at the division office went off around 10 a.m. Shortly after that, Hughes sent most of the staff home to ride out the storm. By the time he left 2 hours later, heavy rain was falling and sustained 90-mile (145-kilometer)-per-hour winds were battering Jackson. The eye of the storm traveled through Mississippi only 40 miles (64 kilometers) east of the division office.
"I drive a pickup truck, but there's a pretty high-level interchange I have to go through to get home," says Hughes. "For a while there, I thought I'd made a mistake and stayed too long at the office. It was pretty wild."
The Immediate Aftermath
The day after the storm, when Hughes returned to the office, he found one government vehicle damaged, the power out, and the telephone system down. With his landline out, his cell phone rang at 7 a.m. It was FHWA's then Acting Administrator J. Richard Capka and a team of his colleagues calling from FHWA headquarters in Washington, DC. They were asking for a status report. Hughes reported all division personnel were safe, but some of their personal property had sustained damage. Hughes also reported that the Mississippi coast had suffered extensive damage to the transportation infrastructure.
After that, Hughes and Schmidt headed for the coast, stopping first in Hattiesburg to meet with MDOT officials. "We have an excellent relationship with MDOT and worked together from day one," Schmidt says. After that meeting, Hughes and Schmidt in company with MDOT officials continued down to the coast to the damaged I–10 bridge. A 600-foot (183-meter) section of the eastbound bridge had been hit by barges and severely damaged. Eastbound interstate traffic was detoured onto local roads. Clearly, the first order of business would be to get I–10 functioning again.
Next on the reconnaissance tour was working their way west on U.S. 90. The four-lane highway is a critical economic lifeline along the coast, connecting communities, hospitals, and the coast's two main industries: seafood and casinos. Many sections of the highway were covered with sand and debris; others were washed out by water from the storm surge. "Never in my life have I seen anything like it," says Hughes.
Emergency Relief Inspection Teams
Official Katrina statistics list 238 fatalities in Mississippi alone. The President quickly declared the entire State a disaster area, so the division office formed inspection teams to assess the infrastructure damage—the first step in obtaining Federal emergency relief program funds. Given the small number of employees in the division office compared to the magnitude of damage, Hughes called upon his counterparts in two nearby States for help. South Carolina sent three people, and Tennessee sent two to help form 13 inspection teams. (For more information on emergency relief funds, see www.fhwa.dot.gov/programadmin/erelief.cfm.)
The teams also included representatives from MDOT. At a joint kickoff meeting, FHWA and MDOT set up schedules for the inspections. In the coming days, the teams would end up inspecting the Federal-aid routes—thousands of miles—in the damaged counties.
Inspecting the coast was hazardous and complicated. There were no places to stay, so the teams had to drive to the coast from Jackson early in the morning, head back the same day, and then turn around and do it again the following day. This went on for 3 long weeks.
During the inspections, emergency centers were the only places to obtain food and water. There was no sanitation, and sewage was spilling out into the streets. At Gulfport, refrigerated containers of chicken and shrimp that had been waiting to be shipped overseas had washed up into the city. "The stench was unbearable. The damage assessments were quite an ordeal," recalls Hughes.
In the end, the supporting documentation for the emergency relief funds totaled thousands of pages. For each road, the inspection teams estimated the cubic yards of debris that would have to be removed, the guardrails damaged, pavement damage, structural damage, traffic signals down, and so on. The reconstruction of Mississippi's infrastructure ended up costing more than $1 billion. The emergency relief program provided 100 percent reimbursement for all eligible work, rather than the usual full reimbursement being limited to emergency work completed within 180 days.
The Rebuilding Gets Underway
To repair the damaged I–10 bridge, the State used accelerated procedures to award a $5.2 million contract within 1 week. The contractor demolished the damaged spans and reconstructed them, completing the work in 21 days. So within a month, thanks to accelerated construction, the bridge was totally operational and back to what it was before Katrina. At the same time, the contractor repaired another bridge on a spur that connects I–10 to Biloxi.
Concurrently, the State focused on restoring two lanes of traffic on U.S. 90 between Biloxi and Bay Saint Louis. According to The Great Deluge, a 2006 book about Katrina by Douglas Brinkley, during the storm U.S. 90 had "turned into a raging river." One of the casino barges sat in the middle of the four-lane highway.
"In order to restore the highway, it was obvious the top priority was to address how we were going to replace the bridges on 90," says Hughes. "The decision was made to utilize the design-build contracting mechanism for those two bridges. This was the first use of design-build in the State."
Throughout the process, FHWA headquarters provided crucial guidance on funding eligibility and help with hydraulic design and environmental clearance. In addition, headquarters helped with contract administration items, such as incentive/disincentive amounts, road user costs, and stipend allowance for the design-build projects.
The notice to proceed on the Saint Louis Bay bridge was issued on February 20, 2006, with a $266.8 million contract amount. A contract milestone called for completing half of the bridge and opening it to two-way traffic by May 16, 2007. The contractor was to receive a $5 million lump-sum bonus if that date was met. The contract also included a disincentive penalty of $100,000 per day if the contractor failed to meet that date. The contractor met the milestone date, earning the lump sum bonus. All remaining work included in that contract was completed February 15, 2008.
At the height of the construction, two 10-hour shifts were used on both projects. Both bridges were standard construction with pile-supported, cast-in-place decks. The Saint Louis Bay bridge has four lanes plus a shared-use lane for pedestrians and bicyclists. The Biloxi bridge has six lanes plus a shared-use lane. The Saint Louis Bay bridge is 85 feet (26 meters) high to provide the necessary clearance above a shipping channel. The bridge is 2.1 miles (3.4 kilometers) long. Similarly, the Biloxi bridge is 95 feet (29 meters) high and 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers) long. The bridges contain epoxy-coated rebar to withstand exposure to saltwater.
During construction of the Biloxi bridge, the detour used State highways and took only about 25 to 30 minutes. But with the Saint Louis Bay bridge, the detour on State highways and county roads took 45 minutes to 1 hour. As the project progressed, congestion began to increase, resulting in residents asking for ferry service to connect the cities of Bay Saint Louis and Pass Christian. Schmidt notes, "We had never procured a ferry service before."
But MDOT and FHWA met that challenge. The ferry was provided and carried about 25 cars at a time and operated 7 days a week, starting November 1, 2006, and continuing until two lanes of traffic opened on the bridge the following May. The Secretary of Transportation at the time, Mary E. Peters, came down from Washington for the maiden voyage, one of her first acts after taking office in October.
Hers was the third high-level visit. Previously, then Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta had visited twice—once right after the hurricane struck and then several months later to assess the progress of the recovery efforts in the Bay Saint Louis area.
In early 2006, after two lanes on U.S. 90 were opened to traffic, contracts were let to do temporary work to get all four lanes operational. After the new bridges were completed, U.S. 90 was totally rebuilt. The contracts for that work were awarded beginning in July 2007 and completed in March 2009, for a total of about $97.8 million.
As of mid-2011, Mississippi is very close to finishing all work associated with rebuilding the transportation infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Instead of a ribbon-cutting ceremony, the two communities connected by the Saint Louis Bay bridge held a ribbon-tying celebration when the new structure opened to two-way traffic. A ribbon was stretched from each side—Bay Saint Louis and Pass Christian—and tied together in the middle of the bridge.
"That was one of the most emotional events I've ever attended," says Hughes. "People were crying for joy upon reconnecting the two communities and reopening U.S. 90—the lifeline of the Mississippi coast."
Noting that Katrina was the most destructive hurricane to ever strike the United States, Hughes offers advice to other division offices facing major natural disasters: "React quickly, prepare yourself on the run, assemble the resources to do inspections, call in available resources if you need help, be prepared to do whatever it takes to get the job done, reach agreement with the State on the scope of work and the contracting mechanisms, and always maintain thorough and well-organized project records."
Schmidt adds, "We had a great team. MDOT and FHWA communicated exceptionally well, we made joint decisions, and that helped speed up the process: initial inspections, contracts, and design time. The major infrastructure was restored in record time."
This sentiment is echoed by then MDOT Executive Director Larry L. "Butch" Brown: "Although the recovery process was very complex and challenging, all parties, including the private sector, worked together and met the challenge. I am especially proud of the effort put forth to incorporate the principles of context sensitive solutions and livability in the reconstruction of U.S. 90."
Hughes concludes, "I've never lived through anything like this before—and hope to never experience it again."
Donald Davis is the Mississippi Division's assistant division administrator. He has served with FHWA for 21 years with previous assignments in Texas, Florida, and Alabama following completion of FHWA's Highway Engineering Training Program. Davis is a graduate of The Florida State University with a B.S. in civil engineering.
Norah Davis is the editor of PUBLIC ROADS.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Jeffrey A. Schmidt with editing and gathering data for this article.
For more information, contact Donald Davis at 601–965–4146 or email@example.com.