After a loose construction barge knocked a chunk of roadway out of the Pensacola Bay Bridge during Hurricane Sally, Florida Sen. Doug Broxson estimated the damage may take a month or more to repair.
The senator confirmed that during the storm, a crane passed under the bridge and smashed through the surface of the road from beneath. The collision happened a day after a different construction barge owned by contractor Skanska USA had broken loose and struck a fishing pier before becoming lodged beneath the Pensacola Bay Bridge on Tuesday morning.
The bridge was closed immediately and never reopened, before it was hit again sometime in the early morning hours Wednesday.
Broxson said the contractor made the decision not to move the equipment out of the area based on projections showing Hurricane Sally making landfall well west of Pensacola. Instead, it landed near Gulf Shores, Alabama, leaving Pensacola on the devastating side of winds and rain.
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The barge was just one of several that broke loose. Five washed up near downtown —four just west of the Missing Children’s Memorial and one in front of the Gulf Power building — and a sixth was drifting toward the Escambia Bay and the Interstate 10 bridge when it grounded about a half mile away from another collision.
An seventh barge floated loose and wedged itself against the Garcon Point Bridge, forcing the bridge to remain closed until road crews can inspect it. Santa Rosa County emergency management said the barge ran against the bridge at around 4 p.m. and was not secured or tethered to anything.
Skanska did not address queries regarding the number and location of its barges that had been dislodged by the storm.
“We are aware of the impact on the Pensacola Bay Bridge project stemming from the unforeseen effects of Hurricane Sally,” an emailed statement from the company said. “At this time, our main priority is the safety of our team members and the surrounding community. We remain in close communication with local authorities and the Florida Department of Transportation, and will assess the full impact to the project in coordination with them once it is safe to do so.”
A spokesperson for the DOT said Wednesday afternoon that staff would be inspecting the damage to local structures once conditions were safe to do so and providing updates about their status.
The damaged Pensacola Bay Bridge, often referred to as the Three Mile Bridge locally, is among just a handful of arteries between Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, and Broxson said state officials are doing what they can to minimize the impact on citizens while the bridge is out of commission.
“We’re working on trying to suspend tolls indefinitely till that bridge is put back together, which probably will be 30 to 60 days at least,” he said.
Broxson said he, like his constituents, was still and shock and wrapping his head around the devastation caused by Hurricane Sally. In the near term, he said the focus for him and the state would be helping ensure communities were safe and accessible.
“I think probably what we’re prioritizing is trying to shore up our transportation and the infrastructure, making sure that people are safe, that they’re not stranded,” Broxson said Wednesday afternoon. “Then we’ll have a conference call tonight with Director Jared Moskowitz and his team with the Florida Division of Emergency Management about some funding that we need immediately and that we’d like the state to advance to take care of people that may be in harm’s way or having problems with their neighborhood where they can’t get out.”
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Broxson said things were moving quickly considering the storm had hit less than 12 hours ago, but he noted there would still be a lot unknowns about the totality of the damage.
For now, “I think the Bay Bridge is the big issue,” Broxson said.
The secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation is expected to have discussions with Skansa over the consequences of the collisions, Broxson said, but in the long-term, state officials are hoping to recoup the cost of the damages in their ask from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“It is certainly not human error — not moving might have been a human error — but the fact that it was dislodged was caused by a natural disaster, and we’re gonna see what (FEMA’s) take is on helping us get the resources to immediately put that bridge back together.”
Answering whether federal CARES Act funding might be a possible funding avenue for disaster relief and rebuilding efforts, Broxson said it’s unlikely. However, he noted that FEMA had traditionally worked with governments to ensure they had what they needed to recover.
Broxson said paperwork had already been sent to Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties to start the process of selecting contractors for debris removal. He said in the beginning governments would likely be borrowing from themselves, but that FEMA had been reliable about reimbursing local disaster expenditures, even if it took awhile.
On a personal note, Broxson estimated he had received about five feet of flooding on his property, and said he had lost a boat, a dock and multiple vehicles. Broxson said he and his family were safe, and at the moment he was mainly just in disbelief at how catastrophic Sally had been, especially considering it had been classified as a Category 2 hurricane.
“I think when you get the reports from the coastline between here and Navarre along the beach, every man-made structure is going to have to be replaced … that’s unprecedented,” Broxson said.
“It will go down as an Ivan,” Broxson said, referencing a devastating hurricane that ravaged Pensacola exactly 16 years prior. “I think over the next few days when you see the damage it’s done, this is going to shock you.”
Kevin Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8527.