Even when rains stop, closed roads linger

Published 12:05 pm Friday, May 29, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY — “Road Closed” signs are growing like mushrooms in the aftermath of this month’s floods and may linger for months — if not years — as county leaders scramble to make repairs.

“There’s a lot more damage and need than there is money and there is manpower to do it immediately,” said Cleveland County Commissioner Rod Cleveland, who tallies at least $1 million in damages in the area south of Oklahoma City since the start of May.

Officials warn that scarce resources — cash, supplies and workers — will delay work even when federal funds flow. Also, projects like laying new asphalt cannot be done in the winter.

Officials statewide are still taking stock after rains destroyed roads, bridges and drainage piping. Early damage estimates run in the millions of dollars. Unrelenting rains that keep some roads and bridges submerged are complicating the inventory.

But it’s clear the disaster’s effects are more widespread than those of a tornado, said Cleveland. Seventy of 77 counties have reported damage from more than a foot of rain that’s fallen this month alone, according to state officials.

“This flooding has destroyed public property,” Cleveland said. “The flooding is probably a greater catastrophe for the public — for public life — than a tornado.”

Five teams — each with a federal and state inspector — have started the arduous work of visiting each county to size up damage and decide what projects qualify for federal disaster aid.

Albert Ashwood, the state’s director of emergency management, said crews are starting south of Interstate 40 “because we know they were hit very hard.”

“It’s going to take a while to get to each place,” he said, adding that federal aid should start flowing soon.

For projects that qualify, the federal government will pay 75 percent of repairs and the state 12.5 percent, with counties required to foot the rest of the bill in cash or in-kind work.

But even as crews start tackling the biggest problems, state officials warn that issues like potholes or broken pavement may appear — and even worsen — long after the rain stops.

“We are bracing ourselves because that is almost a certain thing with that type of moisture,” said Terri Angier, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

Randy Robinson, executive director of the Oklahoma Cooperative Circuit Engineering Districts Board, likens the aftershocks to the effect of standing on a soaked beach.

Repeatedly putting your foot on saturated sand causes the water trapped below to seep to the surface. In much the same way, vehicles driving over the saturated roads can cause damage, said Robinson, who works with county officials on road projects.

Federal emergency dollars will cover a lot of that damage, he said, but many issues won’t be immediately apparent. Also, federal aid often comes as a reimbursement, later in the process.

“You’re almost left to your own resources to fix what you have,” he said. “A lot of counties will be faced with having to close roads off until they can get money to make temporary fixes.”

State contributions remain unclear.

Gov. Mary Fallin has promised help but also says she has no plans to call a special session of the Legislature to free up money from the state’s surplus fund, known as the “rainy day fund,” despite calls from some local leaders and Democratic lawmakers to do so.

Millions of dollars in infrastructure damage come just after lawmakers maneuvered to plug a $611 million shortfall in the state budget. Their solutions included taking about $12 million from the Department of Transportation’s maintenance fund, and diverting $50 million from a fund that pays for county road and bridge work.

Most of that more than $100 million county road and bridge fund is already spoken for, anyway, by long-term projects.

Meanwhile, $4.5 million is set aside in an emergency transportation fund for counties to borrow against, said John Estus, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.

But it cannot pay for everything: Pittsburg County in southeastern Oklahoma, for example, is already reporting at least $2 million in damages alone.

Even before the skies opened, Robinson said counties already faced the complex task of maintaining thousands of miles of roads on limited budgets.

“The flooding has just made it more complicated now,” he said.

Some only have budgeted money for basic maintenance — not large repairs.

“Really the only avenue is to close the road,” he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Statehouse for CNHI’s Oklahoma newspapers. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com