There are no quick fixes for the bridges damaged by the flood around Niobrara, but officials are hoping to have temporary bridges in place by the time school starts in the fall.
At a public meeting Wednesday in Niobrara, officials addressed efforts to repair multiple bridges, including the Mormon Canal Bridge, between Niobrara and the Niobrara State Park. The issues ran deeper than simple transportation, according to those attending, because first responders are unable to reach those in need during emergency situations.
Mark Simpson lives west of the bridge that’s out and said he’s now an hour from town. Since he and his wife, Pat, are both EMTs, they are now carrying equipment if needed.
“We’ve got the back end of our pickup loaded with rescue equipment,” Simpson said. We’re getting a defibrillator and that kind of thing, but it can be a life. I mean you either call a helicopter or you try and drive out there as fast as you can, but it’s going to be hard to deal with that.”
Kyle Schneweis, director of the Nebraska Department of Transportation, said he understands the concerns and Knox County won’t be forgotten despite so much emphasis on the Omaha and Lincoln area.
“I would just like to emphasize that we don’t have any bigger priorities than the projects we’re talking about here at DOT,” Schneweis said. “When you’re talking the EMTs, when you’re talking the businesses, the life of these communities, there’s no bigger priority. If you go away with nothing, please understand that.”
Schneweis said during the peak of last month’s flood, one fifth of all of Nebraska’s highways were closed. Of the 2,000 miles closed, just 117 remain closed today, including some in Knox County along Highway 12.
He said there are two bridges west of Niobrara impacted by the flood. Although one requires minor repairs, until the Mormon Canal bridge is repaired, the other bridge is all but useless.
“We hear you,” Schneweis said. “We need to get that thing open as quickly as possible. We’re trying to get that temporary bridge in place in time for school to open in August.”
Khalil Jaber, the NDOT Deputy Director-Engineering, said they are looking at combining the temporary and the permanent bridges at the Mormon Canal into one contract.
“What you’re going to see is we’re taking a 36-month project delivery or even 12 months of hydraulic analysis into four weeks,” he said. “What we’re concerned about is when the contractors are building the permanent after they finish the temporary, you’re going to see that immediately happening. We worried that if there’s any events or anything that hits that, then we’re all the sudden completely out of the temporary.”
Jaber said the the permanent bridge will take years, not months, but they are trying to be as aggressive as possible with repairs. When asked if a footbridge is possible, Moe Jamshidi, NDOT Deputy Director-Operations, said even that would require permits and inspections that would slow down other repairs in the long run.
“The footbridge also has to meet certain standards and everything and build it to a place where it doesn’t interfere with our temporary bridge that we are putting there,” he said. “ We really felt like it was not really efficient.”
Kevin Domogalla, NDOT District 3 Engineer, said there are more than 60 sites in the area that have been identified as having damages and repairs began in Knox County “as soon as the rain stopped falling.”
He said west of Niobrara — and east of Verdel — temporary patches are already in place that have made Highway 12 traversable again. South of Niobrara, he said, a contractor is working on a bridge over Burgess Creek where the bridge deck had issues due to the extra traffic and ice.
“Once again, got them in real quick,” Domogalla said. “Looks like we might get that open (and) get the traffic lights out of there on Friday, so that’ll be open for the weekend.”
A representative from the Santee Sioux Nation emergency management asked about raising Highway 12.
Jaber said, “With the unalignment, obviously we’re raising that road and then any connections and any consideration from elsewhere is not necessarily part of that.”
He said unalignment — or raising the highway is “the most feasible, practical, economical” for the situation.
Domogalla said east of Niobrara is more difficult to repair, although K Porter Construction is working on the damages, including “a rather large washout, bigger than what we had first anticipated, that slowed the progress down.” He said there’s no timeline as to when it will be finished, but they are hauling millings in to be put down.
“We’re committed to getting these roads open as soon as we can,” Domogalla said.
They also discussed a bridge south of Spencer. Although the original bridge is fine, with a quarter of the highway gone, they are needing to create a new bridge. They are aiming for a new bridge to be open by August with a permanent bridge open in 2020.
“That’s the kind of bridge you don’t just build overnight,” Domogalla said.