Skanska, the company hired to build the new $430 million Pensacola Bay Bridge, confirmed to the News Journal on Tuesday that 22 of its barges broke loose and washed ashore during Hurricane Sally, crashing into private seawalls, bridges and docks.
Company officials said they had 55 barges on the bridge construction project, and 12 of the 22 barges that ran aground during Hurricane Sally on Sept. 16 ended up on private property.
Since then, the company has only issued general statements on the situation and largely refused to answer specific questions from the press and public.
Escambia County Administrator Janice Gilley said during a press conference on Tuesday that she believes the company or the Florida Department of Transportation should provide answers on the incident in front of the press.
"I definitely believe that the Department of Transportation and Skanska need to come to our community and answer those questions," Gilley said. "That's important. We all have those questions about this. And we've not really had a lot of response from either of those entities."
'Skanska made all appropriate preparations for the storm'
Skanska officials said a community liaison group had made contact with at least 10 families who had barges in their yards and was going to properties to make contact in person for those it hadn't reached yet. However, at least six of the 12 families who had barges on their property told the News Journal on Monday they had not yet heard from the company.
"Each barge is a unique recovery operation," the company said in a statement. "We are working with engineers and marine recovery experts to determine how to safely remove each barge while minimizing further disruption to both the homeowner and their neighbors."
The company said determining how the damage will be paid for will have to be worked out with its insurance company.
Company representatives wouldn't comment on the specifics of the preparations they made — or failed to make — ahead of Hurricane Sally beyond the company's original statement.
"Skanska made all appropriate preparations for the storm based on the information we had available at the time," the company said in a written statement. "The sudden shift in the intensity, direction, and duration of the storm was unprecedented and entirely unexpected by the entire Pensacola community. Unfortunately, it was neither safe nor feasible to attempt the removal of barges and other equipment in the brief period between the storm’s sudden intensification and its ultimate landfall."
Sally became a tropical storm officially on Sept. 12 in the Gulf of Mexico. Although the initial forecast from the National Hurricane Center had the center of Sally aimed at the Louisiana-Mississippi border, Pensacola was included in the forecast average error, known as the "cone of uncertainty."
A tropical storm watch was issued for Pensacola at 4 p.m. Sept. 12, and a tropical storm warning was issued at 4 a.m. Sept. 13. A hurricane warning for the area was issued at 4 p.m. Sept. 14. Sally made landfall 36 hours later.
Skanska: No timeline on repairs
Skanska is building the bridge out of a work yard on Bayou Chico, and has stored barges there in the past. Company officials declined to answer why they chose not to move the barges the short distance to the work yard.
In addition to the private damage, two barges hit Pensacola Bay Bridge. The bridge was closed the morning of Sept. 15 after a barge hit the underside of the bridge. Sometime early morning Sept. 16, a second barge hit the bridge, damaging at least four sections and the pilings underneath.
Local officials originally said it would take 30 to 60 days to make repairs, but have since confirmed the damage appears to be more significant.
Mike Iacovella, a Skanska spokesperson, told the News Journal on Tuesday that the company brought in resources from across the country to Pensacola to help in its recovery from Sally.
"We recognize this is a major event that has our full attention, and we are putting the full resources of the company to address it," Iacovella said. "That includes bringing resources and expertise from around the country. We are fortunate that we are able to mobilize those resources quickly."
Iacovella said like many others in Pensacola, Skanska has employees who lost homes and property in the storm.
“These barges, they're our responsibility to retrieve, and to do that as quickly and as safely as possible,” Iacovella said.
Skanska would not comment on the timeline to repair the bridge and deferred all questions on the bridge to the Florida Department of Transportation.
FDOT to inspect bridge
FDOT said Tuesday in a press release that at least four underwater piers were rotated as a result of a barge impact causing beams to shift, and one pier had suffered a crack that extended all the way underground.
"The department understands how critical this facility is to the community and is also working to develop the repair plan necessary to restore the bridge back to a condition that will last for decades to come," FDOT's statement said.
FDOT said all barges would have to removed from the bridge before it can complete its inspection. A full inspection of the bridge in good conditions can take up to three weeks, the department said, adding that conditions are currently not favorable.
An accurate timeline for repairs won't be available until the bridge is fully inspected, the statement said.
State Sen. Doug Broxson told the News Journal on Tuesday that the state of Florida is paying nearly $500 million for a bridge that is meant to last 75 years, and the damage from Hurricane Sally doesn't change that.
"The reason they're doing such a careful, forensic analysis of all the areas that were struck is that they expect every part of that bridge to last 75 years," Broxson said. "And there is not going to be any cheap repairs. The repairs are going to be made to the standard they would expect if it's under construction."
State Rep. Alex Andrade said the bridge doesn't belong to the state yet; it belongs to Skanska while it is under construction.
"They're under a contract with the state to turn over a completely functioning and safe bridge within the timeline established in the contract," Andrade said.
Andrade added that a decision has not been made on who will be liable for the damage and whether it is ruled an "act of God," which could depend on if proper protocols were followed as Sally approached Pensacola.
"My understanding is they moved barges in the past in response to storms that were in the Gulf," Andrade said. "So the question is what is their standard practice? Is it written down anywhere, and did they actually follow it? ... Anyone can guess. Hindsight is absolutely 20/20. But if inclement weather forced one of their pieces of equipment to damage the bridge that they were building, there's definitely a level of responsibility there."
Commuters can expect traffic jams
Meanwhile, thousands of commuters will be left sitting in traffic jams along Garcon Point Bridge and State Road 87 as alternative routes.
County and city officials are in talks with the state about providing a ferry for people between Pensacola, Gulf Breeze and Pensacola Beach. The ferry, if one is established, would likely only carry people and not cars.
"We are still evaluating the infrastructure to support those, and I just asked for some patience as we work through it," Escambia County Commissioner Robert Bender said Tuesday. "But do know that we are working through that. And to get it out as soon as possible and help alleviate the traffic gridlock in the detour of Garcon Point."
The toll on Garcon Point Bridge has officially been lifted until 6 a.m. Wednesday, but both Broxson and Andrade said they fully expect the toll exemption to be extended before then as Gov. Ron DeSantis told officials in a meeting the toll would be lifted until the Pensacola Bay Bridge was repaired.
"I expect that toll to continue to be lifted," Andrade said. "I believe the governor's statement on it."
Jim Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 850-208-9827.
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