Most drawbridges, unless they are automated or opened by appointment only, are manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There is a very good reason for this. Maritime law predates most other law by as much as a century. Impeding maritime transit in any way is a HUGE no-no. Bridgetenders who abandon a bridge without express permission from the Coast Guard can be prosecuted.
In my experience, the only time I’ve seen a ‘tender-less bridge is when said bridge was in the path of an imminent hurricane. Needless to say, no sane vessel is out in that weather, and it’s generally poor form to kill off one’s employees. Or so you’d think.
Unfortunately, I was once caught up in a Florida Department of Transportation snafu of epic proportions. A tropical storm was headed our way. To reach tropical storm category, the winds have to be 39 to 73 miles per hour. Per the Coast Guard, we cannot open a drawbridge if the sustained winds are 39 miles per hour or more, so they were already announcing on the marine radio that all bridges would be closed.
The Department of Transportation was disassembling our traffic gates and tying them to our railings so they’d still be there when the storm was over. So we couldn’t open the bridge due to wind. And we had no traffic gates. The Coast Guard was announcing that the bridges were closed. So we should be able to get off the dangerous windy bridges, right?
Oh no. Even though I didn’t work for DOT, but rather for a subcontractor, DOT got to make the decision. And they decided that since this was a tropical storm, not a hurricane, we had to stay put.
But the weather forecast was predicting that it would be upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane by the time it reached us. That means 74 to 95 mile per hour winds. But that “official” change would not take place until after regular office hours. Pretty please, can we take shelter? No.
If I wanted to keep my job and not go to prison, I had to go to work. Streets were flooded. Trees were down. I had to detour several times just to get to my destination. Then I had to walk up the bridge. The rain was coming at me sideways. It felt like I was being pelted with ice cold hypodermic needles. I had to lean into the wind to make progress. Forget about an umbrella. Impossible.
To make matters worse, it was the graveyard shift, and even at the best of times at that hour you feel like you’re the only person alive on the face of the earth. I was sitting all alone in a tenderhouse that was 3 feet wide by 8 feet long. I’ve seen coffins that were bigger. I hoped that this wasn’t going to become mine.
The bridge was swaying. I watched as transformers blew up all over town. The phone went down first. Then my power went out, and the generator kicked in. I was soon to wish that it hadn’t.
Imagine this: I’m trapped in a little room with a big electrical console and suddenly the wind shifts and is now at such an angle that the sideways rain is pouring through the crack where the window meets the sill. I now have a cascade of water flowing down the wall, past my feet, and heading toward the electrical wiring.
Fortunately there’s a hatch in the floor. So I open the hatch, take a broom, and sweep the water down the hatch. And I do this for, literally, 5 straight hours.
At the end of my shift, the worst was over. I was amazed to be alive, and even more amazed that my coworker came in to relieve me. I walked off the bridge, soaking wet, exhausted, in 40 mile per hour winds and temperatures in the 50’s. Talk about a wind chill factor. By time I got home (which was no mean feat since power lines were down everywhere), my lips were blue. We heated water in the fireplace so I could take a bath.
Never once did anyone take ownership of that fiasco. No one was fired. No one apologized. Policies were not changed. But I have a blog, so I can have the last word. But do I even have to tell you my opinion of the Florida Department of Transportation? I think you can guess.
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