Hurricane Irene Aftermath
October 10, 2011 Facebook TwitterMore...

   IT’S OPEN!!.


The scene was happy and triumphant this evening when Highway 12 reopened between Rodanthe and Oregon Inlet for the first time since Hurricane Irene severed this section of road on Aug. 27.

In 44 days, the North Carolina Department of Transportation and several subcontractors repaired two major sections of highway north of Rodanthe.  The section at Mirlo Beach had a small inlet which was filled.  Five miles north was a much larger inlet and multiple breaches which required a temporary bridge to span much of the area.

According to Pablo Hernandez, DOT’s chief engineer on the site, “It took 15,000 man hours in 44 days to do this.  That’s equivalent to eight men working for one full year.”

Travel on and off Hatteras Island has been possible only by ferry system since the hurricane, which hampered everything from supply deliveries to people trying to vacation on the island.

At 6 p.m., all the hardships were forgiven and forgotten as cars and trucks lined up at the barricades either waiting to leave the island or to drive onto it.  The line of vehicles was at least a mile in each direction.

Jubilant faces lit up the graying skies as cars, trucks, campers, and trailers drove over the narrow little bridge on Pea Island.  People were beeping their horns, giving the thumb’s up, and waving wildly at the news crews, bridge workers and each other in celebration of the grand opening.  Passengers were snapping as many pictures and filming as much video as the news people standing along side the road.

There was an equal number of North Carolina and out-of-state tags using the bridge.  Georgia, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Florida, and Quebec were some of the first cars coming onto the island.

There was a longer line of vehicles going south than heading off Hatteras Island.  But, then again, there were some locals  who drove across the New New Inlet only to do a U-turn and come back across the bridge minutes later.

Heavy equipment used to repair the road was part of the crowd of vehicles heading off the island.

It was a buzzer beater to get Highway 12 opened on Monday evening, which was one day earlier than predicted by NCDOT’s Division I Engineer, Jerry Jennings.  However, DOT announced midday Monday via news releases, Facebook, and Twitter that the road would open Monday evening.

This was a much anticipated moment for islanders, visitors, and road workers who had been waiting for the word for weeks.

At 4 p.m., asphalt was still being delivered from Nags Head to Mirlo Beach to finish this part of the road.  Hot asphalt was dumped, spread, and flattened quickly as time ticked on.  The crew worked at a feverish pitch to make the road smooth for the deadline.

Even then, there were still plenty of finishing touches undone on the punch list.

At 5:15 p.m., the paint truck arrived to stripe the road that wasn’t finished.  Reflectors needed to be installed into the asphalt before the road opened.

New road signs were quickly installed warning of new speed limits and changes in traffic patterns.

Equipment from both work areas was being loaded up and moved off the island.  Several areas that had been used as work or staging areas for the last several weeks were suddenly devoid of machinery and materials.

In the waning moments before Highway 12 reopened, several NCDOT supervisors along with Jerry Jennings, Pablo Hernandez, and Dare County Commission Chairman, Warren Judge, met with several news agencies, including TV crews from Virginia and eastern North Carolina.

Reporters were taken across the new bridge and were given a moment to take pictures and videos and to ask questions of the DOT.

This was a moment of glory for the guys who worked so hard to make it happen in such a short period of time.  It took almost nine weeks to be able to drive to Hatteras village after an inlet was cut by Hurricane Isabel in 2003. 

The magnitude of this damage was far greater this time, and travel was restored in fewer than seven weeks.

Pablo Hernandez has been involved with this repair and rebuilding project everyday since Aug. 31.  He said the goal was to get it done in a month, admittedly a very tall order.  Construction work didn’t even begin until after Labor Day.

Every phase of the project moved at a highly accelerated pace.  There were a lot of things that had to come together and crews were working off a set of plans that was constantly changing, says Hernandez.

Then there were the complications.  The plans, which were quickly drawn up, didn’t always work out in the field.

Another big problem was the weather, which worked against the road and bridge construction for weeks.  Nor’easters, big waves from Hurricane Katia, record rainfall, lightning, and above average lunar tides all took a turn at undermining the project.  The constant moving and shifting of the coastline made it difficult to keep to a deadline.

“Weather! Water! Mosquitoes!  I was so sick of being wet,” says Hernandez, who finally resorted to always having a change of clothing with him.

Even with the road now passable, he is worried about the new weather event as a low pressure system moves into the area Tuesday and Wednesday.

“We don’t know how the inlet is going to react to the wave action and persistent rain,” says Hernandez.

But, that’s tomorrow.  Today was a glorious day for the island, which is still in the early stages of recovery from a devastating hurricane.  With our only road on and off the island back in once piece, life is one more step closer to being normal.

Driving back to Rodanthe an hour after the bridge opened, it was like nothing had happened. 

The lines of vehicles were gone and there wasn’t a single piece of heavy machinery or a yellow DOT truck. 

There was only a smooth new piece of asphalt running alongside some new, tall sand dunes with straight painted lines and tiny reflectors in the road that mirrored the car’s headlights

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