Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Normally quiet Quartzsite off-season gets more so -- with I-10 bridge out

R&T De Maris
A weather-related situation, that if had happened in December or January could have made life even messier for Quartzsite, will still have repercussions for weeks to come. If you missed it in the national news, sit back and we’ll tell the tale of the missing Interstate 10 bridge.

Last Sunday witnessed some of the heaviest rainfalls in Southern California in recent memory. Enough precipitation to “rain out” a L.A. Angels baseball game. Enough of a torrent to transform parking lots into rivers. Enough of a deluge to shut down the main artery from L.A. to Phoenix – “for a very long time.” Well, that was the first blush view from a California Department of Transportation representative, but now it looks like there could be weeks of up to hundreds-of-miles-of-detours, and then heaven only knows how long of traffic delays as a normal, four lanes of traffic begin to share two lanes.

If you’ve driven your rig over the route from Quartzsite to Palm Springs, you’ve more than likely traveled west past the little burg of Desert Center (population 204), the only waypoint between Quartzsite and Indio, aside from the metropolis of Blythe, California. Just a bit west of Desert Center bridges traverse a desert wash – or did, until last Sunday. Now the eastbound bridge over Texas Wash is gone, and the foundations of the westbound bridge severely compromised as flood waters from an oversized gully washer pummeled them, one, literally to a finish.

CalFire Riverside -- John Hawkins
For several hours, weekend traffic came to a dead stop when the eastbound bridge simply collapsed, and taking a pickup truck and two occupants on a ride they’ll surely long remember. When the pickup nosed down into the 15-foot-deep chasm left by the vanishing bridge, other drivers grabbed hold of ropes and tie-down straps, doing their best to keep the pickup from sliding into the flood waters. A passenger was able to scramble to safety, but the driver was trapped – the steering wheel shoved into his stomach, firmly keeping him in place. Brian Castor spent a frightening three-and-a-half hours stuck in the truck as concrete chunks from the bridge smashed down on his rig – two of them striking him in the head. Rescuers finally got him into a hard hat, and eventually got him out of the rig after sawing the roof off the pickup. He was airlifted to a Palm Springs hospital where he was listed as “critical,” but by early week, able to entertain guests with stories of his ordeal.

But the injuries go further. Just a few miles east of the vanishing bridge stands the only fuel stop between Indio and Blythe – Chiriaco Summit Truck Stop. With nearly 27,000 vehicles rolling by on any given day, the sixty-some folks who depend on employment provided by the truck stop and the General Patton Museum next door are feeling the pain already. Although it’s a lot quieter – what with no traffic roaring past – they’re not pumping any gas, nor serving any meals in the restaurant.

Farther east along the Interstate, the bridge collapse is easy to detect. Neighbors of ours in Quartzsite hadn’t heard about the Sunday collapse, and headed down into Blythe on Monday. “Spooky,” is how they described their 20-mile journey. With almost no traffic in either direction (westbound traffic being diverted up Arizona Highway 95), the two were relieved when they were finally told where all the traffic had gone. Still, later in the day, both rest areas west of Quartzsite looked like ghost towns, and traffic at area truck stops definitely on the waning side.

So what’s the outlook? Initially, highway department officials were ready to say it could be a period of months before any traffic could flow over the damaged westbound bridge over Texas Wash. On Monday engineers ruled that the footings of the bridge might be shored up in a matter of weeks, and by 2:00 Tuesday morning, concrete pumping trucks were dispensing what is estimated to be about 1,000 cubic yards of concrete to reinforce the footings under the damaged bridge.

After the westbound span is declared safe, CalTrans will open one lane in each direction on the bridge to accommodate traffic going both ways. But with an average of 18 cars per minute passing over that narrow stretch, life on the way to Palm Springs or Quartzsite is going to be a bit difficult. It’ll surely beat the detours – right now the state is recommending traffic detour either north to Interstate 40 or south to Interstate 8. For some, it’s adding hundreds of extra miles.

Hopefully, by the time the snowbird season arrives, both bridges over Texas Wash will be up and running.

Update 7/23/2015 1002 Mountain Time: 

While it may be difficult to believe, Caltrans authorities have announced that by virtue of emergency repair contracts, the westbound bridge will reopen this Friday, 7/24 at noon. Traffic on the bridge will allow both east and west bound traveler to pass, using a single lane of each bridge, per direction of travel. Expect plenty of delays, but still, it's gotta be better than the alternative routes. We plan on tracking over the bridge come Sunday, and will attempt to get photos and updates.