Officials keep bridges open during Sandy
Early Monday afternoon, prior to Hurricane Sandy reaching its full intensity, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority conducted a briefing for public offi cials and press at its headquarters in Jamestown. In attendance were Gov. Lincoln Chafee and U.S. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed.
The purpose of the briefing was to discuss the planning that goes into a decision to close the Pell Bridge between Jamestown and Newport. According to Jim Swanberg of the authority’s emergency management team, the bridge is closed when there are sustained winds of 69 mph. Readings from anemometers on the bridge are monitored, and during a storm a two-man crew is sent to the top of the road bed every 30 minutes to confirm the reading with handheld units.
Although RITBA does not manage the Jamestown Bridge, the agency closely coordinates with the state Department of Transportation so that the bridge can also be closed if necessary. The Jamestown Bridge is a lower structure, and theoretically can stay open longer. When the Pell Bridge is closed, some time is given before the Jamestown Bridge is closed, which prevents people coming from Aquidneck Island from being trapped.
State Transportation Director Michael Lewis said his agency depends on observations on the Pell Bridge to make decisions about the Jamestown Bridge.
“It has the highest elevation and the longest span,” Lewis said. He added that the DOT works with the bridge authority and the state police on deciding the fate of the Jamestown Bridge. “We want to make sure that it’s safe, but we don’t want to restrict it if it’s not necessary so people can still evacuate if need be.”
In the actual event, the Pell Bridge remained open for the duration of the storm. According to David Darlington, executive director of the authority, peak sustained winds of 58 mph out of the southeast with gusts up to 84 mph were recorded at about 3:30 p.m. Had those conditions continued, it might have become necessary to ban box trucks and other high-profi le vehicles from the bridge, but winds did not remain at that level for a protracted time period.
“We try to do everything we can to make sure it’s a safety issue before we close it off,” he said.
No accidents or other problems were reported on the bridge during the storm.
Chafee pointed to the fact that the state had better warning about the arrival of Sandy. He said that some scientists had been tracking the storm for as long as two weeks, and that the state has been aware of it for a week.
The public officials present pointed to the lessons learned from Hurricane Irene last August – which was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit Rhode Island – and said that they were pleased with the state’s response to the storm. The federal government also assisted in preparation.
“The governors of the northeastern states had a conference call with the president,” Chafee said. “He pledged to help in any way he could and quickly backed it up with these pre-landfall designations.”
Reed said that Rhode Island was coordinating closely with U.S. agencies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was on hand, and a federal disaster declaration was issued.
“In terms of preparation,” Reed said, “the state has done a very good job.”
“The scale of this storm is such that there will be consequences,” Reed continued. “I think we anticipate some flooding and power outages. The other good news is that National Grid is much better prepared to respond and react. It has its crews ready to go, but this is a very serious storm.”
Whitehouse was equally impressed by the response to the storm. “I’m satisfied at this point on all levels. I think that the state is prepared. The [state] Emergency Management Agency has put an unprecedented effort into being prepared. We visited with National Grid this morning. They seem to be well prepared with hundreds and hundreds of people in from as far away as San Francisco to help to address any power outages.”
Whitehouse said that the federal response has been good as well. He said that President Barack Obama was quick and responsive following a request Sunday from Chafee to issue a disaster declaration. “The president turned it around by 2 a.m. with his approval,” said Whitehouse. “That allows everything 75 percent paid for by the federal government, and allows FEMA to bring in resources like food, water, shelter and emergency electric.”
Whitehouse added that he was pleased with the coordination between state and federal agencies. “The emergency management people said they learned a lot from Irene,” he said. “I think it’s showing.”