FEMA assesses damage

Published 3:00 am Saturday, January 9, 2016

Pike County Engineer Russell Oliver sand his staff have documented the 175 sites throughout the county impacted by the Christmas week rains and flooding. ounty Road 4427 (the old Barefoot Road) are among those with significant damage.

Pike County Engineer Russell Oliver sand his staff have documented the 175 sites throughout the county impacted by the Christmas week rains and flooding. ounty Road 4427 (the old Barefoot Road) are among those with significant damage.

More than $1.785 million will be needed to repair roads and bridges in Troy, Brundidge and Pike County after heavy rains and flooding in late December, and local officials hope the federal government will help offset that cost.

Representatives of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency toured damaged roadways on Friday and gathered information for the preliminary damage assessment. The review is a critical step in seeking a federal disaster declaration and, in turn, federal funding to help with repairs in the wake of the Christmas 2015 weather system that dumped as much as 15 inches of rain on areas of Southeast Pike County in a three-day span.

“We have 175 sites on the list,” said Pike County Engineer Russell Oliver. “And our estimated cost to repair them right now is $1,394,673.”

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Oliver’s list doesn’t include roads that fall within city or state Department of Transportation jurisdiction. And his budget doesn’t include money for these repairs. “This is really a big deal for us,” Oliver said. “We’re terribly underfunded to begin with, so something like this really hits us hard.”

And it’s not just the county government and residents who are feeling the pinch. In Brundidge, nine sites have been identified and repair costs estimated at $27,350; in the City of Troy, 13 sites with repair estimates of $363,431. And roadways like U.S. 231 near the Pea River; Highway 93 between Banks and Brundidge; and a section of U.S. 29, all managed by Alabama Department of Transportation, were closed due to water damage as well.

That’s why the emergency declaration issued by Gov. Robert Bentley in the wake of the late December rain event is so important. With that in hand, emergency officials can assess estimated repair costs and send a request to President Obama for a federal emergency declaration. If that declaration is made, federal funding and assistance will be provided.

“I’m coordinator of District B, which goes from Butler and Crenshaw counties all the way to the Georgia line,” said Jessica Schweiger of the Alabama EMA. “Every one of my counties is like this and all 10 have requested preliminary assessments.”

Sterling Bridges, a public assistance coordinator for FEMA, toured Pike County with Schweiger on Friday. After reviewing sites within Troy city limits with Pike County EMA Director Jeanna Barnes, the pair met with Oliver to review the county roads.

“This disaster affects primarily roads and bridges,” Bridges said. “We’re seeing the same types of damage across the area.”

That damage is extensive, said Oliver, who added that county crews have worked “every day since the weekend before Christmas, with the exception of last Sunday, to get the roads open.”

With 175 areas affected, county crews have focused on emergency repairs. “In some cases, we’re just filling in with dirt until we can get back and make permanent repairs,” he said. “And those repairs could take six months, or longer.”

With as many as 26 roads closed at one time during the height of the rain event, county crews have managed to open all but 11 roads now. The roadways that remain closed include the most serious damage, from washed out bridges to washouts under roadways.

And Oliver is aware of how those closures are affecting local residents. He cites County Road 6647, where washing underneath the roadway has forced the county to close a portion of the road.

“We have farmers on both sides of the barricades,” Oliver said. “One farmer has four chicken houses, on the other side of the closed road … so he has to go through the detour every day to get to his chicken houses.”

The other farmer’s barn and equipment are located on the opposite end of the closed section. He, too, must travel through a detour to get to his equipment.

Because the damage is underneath pavement, Oliver worries that drivers will try to skirt the barricades and drive over the roadway. And that could be disastrous.

“What makes it worse is that there’s a six-inch water main under the pavement that’s feeding those chicken houses,” Oliver said. “And that farmer has four houses of nearly mature birds ready to sell.”

Situations like that weigh on Oliver’s mind and are important to the EMA representatives, who must assess the damage and impact for report.

“The goal in getting roads open right now is to be able to have emergency vehicles pass through,” Bridges said. “And it looks like (Oliver) is doing a good job of that … with many of these roads, and the dirt roads, it can take quite a bit of effort and work to get them open.”

While officials have identified the greatest needs, they are reluctant to attach timeframes to the remainder of the process. Mississippi, which had three counties significantly impacted by the weather event, already has secured its federal emergency declaration. In Alabama, officials estimate nearly half the state’s 67 counties were impacted.

“The governor’s office wants us to have the preliminary assessment for the entire state completed by the middle of next week,” Schweiger said. Once that is completed, the request for a federal emergency declaration will be sent to Washington, D.C. If it is approved by the president, FEMA officials will handle the formal assessment and implementation of a repair plan.