Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma saw thousands of people fleeing from their homes, caused billions of dollars in damage, and called into question the safety of the cities affected. One highway safety area, often ignored, was especially brought to light by the ferocious storms: The bridges that dot our roadways and are vulnerable to collapse. No deaths have been linked to bridge failures during the two storms, but data on some of the bridges suggests that it could have been a narrowly averted crisis.
Florida and Texas Offer Contrasts in Bridge Safety
There are 614,387 bridges across the United States, and as Hurricane Harvey loomed, eyes were turned to the 53,488 in Texas—the most in any state. Hurricane Katrina, with the famed collapse of the Twin Bridge on Interstate 10, showed just how damaging such storms could be to an area’s crucial bridges.
Texas, being home to so many of the nation’s bridges, offered the potential for even worse outcomes, but also provided some comfort in the fact that the state’s bridges have been found to be safer, on average, than bridges in the rest of the country.
The American Society of Civil Engineers analyzes bridge safety around the country and has rated an average of 9% of bridges deficient nationwide. This concerning figure does not hold true for Texas, where only 1.7% of bridges are rated structurally deficient.
Florida Bridge Safety Concerns
Florida, on the other hand, has only about 12,000 bridges (though several are well-known ones, including within the Florida Keys), putting it in the middle of the pack regarding the number of bridges within a state. That smaller number does not translate into improved safety, however. The Federal Highway Administration has designated at least 17% of Florida’s bridges as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. That works out to over 2,000 bridges within the seaside state and indicates a serious need for repair and replacement of those structures.
Experts say a deficient or obsolete status does not mean unequivocally that a bridge is dangerous and that many of the issues that have been identified in Florida’s bridges are smaller ones, but a hurricane can maximize minor problems to the safety of a bridge and lead to major challenges.
The fear of hurricane bridge collapses are heightened in Florida, in part due to these figures (in Miami-Dade County, which was heavily battered by the storm, one in four bridges is deficient). The fear is also higher in part because of how crucial many bridges are to residents’ ability to evacuate and, eventually, return home.
Structurally deficient bridges have been identified all over America—to the tune of 55,000 structurally deficient bridges—and experts have long raised concerns over the safety risks of these bridges. The risks to America’s infrastructure, critics say, are too great to continue ignoring.
Which State’s Bridges had More Damage in Hurricanes Harvey and Irma?
Both Texas and Florida sustained damage to their bridges during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. This shows, in part, that even safer-than-average bridges can be susceptible to damage in severe storms, and that every storm can affect a state’s bridges differently, leaving the potential for structural collapse in any area.
Florida officials have inspected all of the 42 bridges in the Keys since Hurricane Irma hit and have now ruled them safe for passage. The bridges were shut down during the storm. Browns Creek Bridge in the Jacksonville area, however, did not fare as well, and officials have had to close the bridge for emergency repairs, leading to a 50-mile detour for residents and business owners looking to access the area on the other side of the bridge.
“That is the support area that was eroded out, no doubt with the surge as the water eroded away some of the soil and foundation to the bridge,” Transportation Department spokesman Ron Tittle said to Jacksonville.com.”We want to make sure we do the work to maintain and support that road structure and not undermine it. Our contractor office staff were out there and we are working on an emergency contract.”
In Texas, a bridge over Greens Bayou, east of downtown Houston, collapsed, and the Indian River Bridge in Bastrop County, near Austin, also collapsed (though that bridge had already been in need of repairs). Elsewhere in the state, a portion of the bridge on U.S. Highway 96 near Jasper was eroded by floodwaters and collapsed.
No injuries were reported in Florida or Texas related to their respective hurricane bridge collapses.
Fort Hunter Bridge Collapse Demonstrated Dangers of Storms
While no injuries or fatalities occurred in the bridge failures in Florida and Texas, an April 4, 1987, bridge collapse in Fort Hunter, New York, serves as a constant reminder of just how deadly such events can be.
The Schoharie Creek bridge collapsed when water from torrential rains and heavy spring snowmelt eroded the bridge’s pilings, which had not been set into the bedrock under the river bed but instead built on the river bed itself. The faulty construction and storm were a fatal combination, and 10 people who were traversing the bridge in four cars and a semi-truck died during the structural failure and subsequent 84-foot fall.
Numerous lawsuits were ultimately filed in connection with the fatal bridge collapse, with the first settlement (for $1.9 million) going to the widow and two children of Robert Hoffman, who died in the collapse.