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Years ago there was a television commercial that warned "It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature," then in a humorous fashion suggested what could happen when the forces of nature are unleashed.
Those same forces were unleashed on Georgia last week, and there was nothing humorous about it at all.
For years Georgians had sought relief from a parching drought that seemed to never end, as lakes and waterways threatened to disappear. Then last week the skies opened and in a matter of days we got months worth of rain. The vagaries of the weather regularly remind us that we are not nearly so much in charge of our universe as we might think.
The floods that hit portions of Georgia were as unexpected as they were severe. North Georgia is accustomed to the death and destruction that sometimes visit within the gale winds of tornados, but hard drenching rain that falls until the rivers overflow highways and pour into homes are rare. And unfortunately in this instance deadly, one sad story after another emerged of lives lost in seemingly inexplicable fashion as water destroyed homes, overturned cars and trapped eventual drowning victims.
Gainesville and the Hall County area were more fortunate than others to the south and west who bore the brunt of the flooding damage.
The suddenness of last week’s violent weather caught most off guard, as what seemed to be routine summer rains simply never abated, gaining strength and volume until they brought with them death and destruction.
In addition to at least nine deaths, property damage already has been estimated at more than $250 million, and that number is certain to rise.
Yet even in the stories of loss and tragedy, there were reminders of the valiant human spirit, as neighbors helped neighbors escape potential tragedy, and scores of rescue workers, utility and highway crews and emergency personnel did those things we too often take for granted — saving lives as part of their jobs.
Local agencies who had few emergencies here were called upon in some instances to chip in elsewhere. Hall County Fire Services responded to help out in Gwinnett County as the storm hit on Monday, and some Gainesville-area employees of Georgia Power Co. were deployed to areas where floods had knocked out electricity.
The storm also brought with it a reminder that a portion of the state’s infrastructure is desperately in need of attention. Its bridges.
As the waters began to recede and roads that had been forced closed by flooding rivers and streams prepared to reopen, news media reports reminded that DOT engineers were checking bridges at a number of locations across the metro area to make sure they were structurally sound to once again handle traffic.
While assuring the safety of bridges after a flood is a common sense practice, the necessity of doing so also brings to the forefront a reminder that the state’s inventory of bridges is in need of serious attention.
A federal report issued in 2006 showed that of Georgia’s 14,523 bridges, some 1,100 were "structurally deficient," a designation given to bridges that need to be replaced. The same designation had been given to a bridge over the Mississippi River in Minnesota that collapsed in 2007 killing 13 and injuring 145.
In addition, the 2006 study showed the state with nearly 1,800 bridges that were deemed to be functionally obsolete, meaning they were too narrow or lacked sufficient clearance.
The state has hundreds of bridges that were built in the first half of the last century, when Georgia was still a rural state and transportation demands were dramatically different than is now the case. Many of them still handle daily traffic loads that include school buses.
Money allocated to the states for transportation projects under the federal economic stimulus program offer an opportunity for rebuilding parts of the state’s bridge network, but so far bridges don’t seem to be a high priority. Of $331 million worth of transportation projects approved for funding under the program this month by Gov. Sonny Perdue, only about $15 million is for bridge projects.
Part of the problem with using the economic stimulus money for bridge work is the emphasis that has been placed on slotting the money for "shovel ready" projects that can be quickly started.
If state leaders don’t start thinking about getting more bridge projects shovel ready, we may find ourselves using those tools to dig our own grave instead.