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GIBA goes through hurricane activity step by step at quarterly meeting

November 24, 2022
By Marcy Shortuse

And yes, that includes the ‘Lake in the Road’

The Friday, Nov. 18 Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority quarterly meeting was abuzz with talk of the hurricane, and how so much has been learned since that day in September. 

To begin, the GIBA Board voted to implement a Temporary Hurricane Relief Emergency Overweight Policy. 

“This policy will allow contractors working with municipalities or public facilities with special transportation needs involving excess weight,” explained GIBA Executive Director Kathy Banson-Verrico. “Each company must apply for an emergency overweight permit from GIBA, including a detailed vehicle configuration. GIBA bridge engineers will review the permit and specific vehicle information. Once the permit is approved, GIBA staff will coordinate travel.”

This permit is particularly important right now due to the large amount of heavy trucks that have been, and will be, going across the bridge for storm cleanup. In particular, the giant trailer(s) that will be needed to take out the remaining piece of cell phone tower in one piece, as well as the industrial chipper that was needed at Wheeler Road to mulch up the landscaping debris piled there.

The board discussed the fact that although they lost approximately $415,000 in revenue during the time the tolls were suspended, their insurance will cover the loss. 

They also discussed the fact that Boca Grande Fire Chief C.W. Blosser was able to get the National Guardsmen to attend the bridge for weeks after the hurricane, to provide a secure front to the island and to back up toll booth workers who were checking for hang tags. After they Guardsmen had to leave to attend to other duties, Florida State Police came for a bit and helped out. Eventually they had to leave, at which time the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office parked an empty squad car in front of one of the tollbooths. 

The hang tag policy worked – at first – Banson-Verrico said, but eventually they had more and more workers trying to get on the island who did not have access to hang tags. They were able to work with the fire department (the agency that runs the hang tag program) until the bridge was re-opened to the public, but things did get hairy for a bit. 

“For a while we were sitting downstairs giving out our own temporary hang tags for people who had a valid reason to be here,” she said. “Then one day I came to work and traffic was backed up for miles on Gasparilla Road and I realized it was just not a working system.”

Kathy said they would be working with the fire department on ways to improve the system, as it is an important part of the standard operating procedure during an emergency situation.

Another interesting point in the conversation at the meeting came when they got to the point of talking about when the bridge did re-open. Some of the board members weren’t privy to the knowledge of who made that decision. Banson-Verrico said it was basically her, and Chief Blosser. The bridge was due to re-open on October 17, but she and the chief made the decision to extend it to October 24 because the island simply wasn’t a safe place yet for visitors. There was too much debris and too many road hazards. As the October 24 deadline loomed closer, Blosser and Banson-Verrico, as well as GIBA Chairman Ginger Watkins, discussed whether the date should be extended again. Blosser said he thought it might be a good idea to extend it, while Banson-Verrico and Watkins said there was too much already going on on the island to try to stop people from coming. Restaurants were starting to open and island churches were holding services at that point, with people from off-island were allowed to attend. There had already been at least one very large party held on the south end of the island and people had been allowed over to go to that. Banson-Verrico said. She was receiving numerous calls every day from people asking for special permission to come to the island, not to mention people who said their civil rights as Americans were being violated by not being able to cross the bridge. She also received calls from island residents who didn’t feel that their property was secure yet, and bringing people in from the general public could possibly bring more crime.

After much discussion it was determined that the bridge would be open to the public on October 29, with the caveat that a new operating procedure and chain of command would be established to determine when the bridge would re-open after the next emergency. Blosser agreed to those terms and said it would be a better idea to have more island stakeholders involved in that decision.

Quite possibly the biggest bit of information, though, was about the “lake in the road” situation that occurred, with the water beginning at the base of the south bridge and extending down the road almost to the second Gulf Shores Drive turnoff. Originally the water reached to the county line, but receded … and stayed … almost to Kappy’s Market for weeks. People asked a lot of questions about why that water was not going away, and because GIBA is the owner of that roadway they were the ones who had to figure that out. They asked GIBA roadway engineer Jon Cole from Giffels Webster Engineers to brief the Board on the “tailwater” flooding, as they called it. 

Cole explained that there was one factor he was looking into specifically – confirming whether or not the lake that Gulf Shores Drive runs around has an outflow or not. He didn’t believe it did, he said, and he wasn’t sure how easy it would be to create one if there wasn’t. Stringent environmental regulatory bureau standards include the fact that water that drains from a roadway must be able to “percolate” through the soil for a certain distance prior to being introduced into a body of water. 

He also addressed another issue of importance, one that was possibly the crux of the whole issue.

“That whole area is a gigantic basin. You have to look at how often the road floods like it did, though. If you feel that it needs to be fixed there is a possibility of elevating that portion of the road, but that’s also very expensive. With water being on both sides of the road, and the fact that Hurricane Irma was the last time that we had standing water for any length of time, it might be a good idea to just leave it alone. Sometimes you can only do what you can do, but don’t run around with your hair on fire trying to rebuild the world if you don’t have to.”

As the discussion concluded the Board commended GIBA staff for the exceptional efforts in providing safe and reliable access to the island post storm.

In other bridge news:

• The Finance Committee report included a review of the fiscal year 2022 unaudited 12-month financial statements. Revenue totals were up 5 percent and expenses were up 4 percent compared to budget. GIBA continues to build cash reserves for debt prepayment and funding the capital bridge replacement fund. The fiscal year ended three days after Hurricane Ian and the statements do not reflect the impact of the storm.

• Dave Mazza from Dana Investments provided an update on the GIBA investment portfolio as of September 30, 2022.

• The Board approved the annual discretionary Valic retirement contribution for eligible employees.

• GIBA renewed its legal contract for five additional years with attorney Robert Berntsson from The BIG W Law firm. 

The next GIBA Quarterly Board Meeting is scheduled for February of 2023.