By Russ Lay on December 3, 2013
Although the North Carolina Department of Transportation announced around 1:30 p.m. that the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet would be closed “immediately” for safety reasons, traffic was flowing freely across the span an hour later.
“All we were told by NCDOT was that the bridge closing was imminent, but they would not commit to a closing time,” Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, said.
Just before 3 p.m., an NCDOT truck lumbered up to the north end of the bridge and dropped two large barricades off along the side of the road.
Twenty minutes later, with no fanfare, an NCDOT pick-up arrived and a state worker got out and dragged one the two barricades onto the road, blocking the southbound lane.
Within minutes, traffic began to back up behind the barrier.
Cars driven Mary Gray and Ann Jennette were the first to encounter barricade.
“My problem is that I don’t have my medicine,” Gray said.
“I don’t have my medicine either,” Jennette said.
Both women live in Buxton, and Gray said DOT workers on the other side informed her she had until 4 p.m. to get back across the bridge when she came over to the northern beaches.
As more vehicles joined the queue, virtually every driver said they were unaware the bridge had been closed or had heard the actual closing would not occur until 4 p.m. The bridge is the only land route on and off Hatteras Island. Many island residents commute to the northern beaches for jobs or health care.
Adding to the frustration of the drivers lining up in front of Oregon Inlet Marina was the steady stream of northbound vehicles coming off of the bridge.
For another 20 minutes, northbound traffic continued to flow, allowing about 60 vehicles to avoid being trapped on Hatteras Island.
NCDOT announced over the weekend that an inspection revealed erosion under pilings at the floor of the inlet required immediate attention but that the bridge was still safe for travel. The announcement added that emergency ferries were ready to deploy if the situation changed.
“We have been talking to the NCDOT engineers daily for a week and all of a sudden they pulled the rug out from under us,” Dare County Commissioner Allen Burrus, who represents Hatteras Island, said when contacted by phone.
“We have cancer patients returning from the northern areas trapped on one side of the bridge, while other cancer patients heading north are now stuck on the Hatteras side.”
Burrus, like many Hatteras residents, wanted answers.
“We still don’t know what changed from yesterday to today to cause the bridge to be closed without any advance notice,” he said.
Burrus suggested that the 100-foot-long dredge Alaska, which has been working to clear the Oregon Inlet channel under an emergency contract, could be “deployed almost immediately to pump sand into the areas around the troubled pilings.”
Burrus said he had raised that issue a few days earlier at a meeting and was told “the dredges were under contract and too many hurdles” had to be overcome to quickly divert the dredge spoils to the troubled span.
“A contract can be changed very quickly if everyone works toward that goal and you can’t convince me the dredge operator wouldn’t mind the savings by building a pipeline half the distance” to shore up the Bonner Bridge.
The dredge spoils are now being pumped ashore on Pea Island south of the bridge.
By 4 p.m. the traffic backup was well north of the Oregon Inlet Marina entrance, and dozens of people were standing outside of their cars hoping the authorities would allow one final wave of traffic to cross southbound.
One Ocracoke resident summed up the feelings of the small crowd gathered around her vehicle:
“I don’t understand how this bridge is any less safe right now than when they let us across this morning. Why couldn’t they have given a four or five hour notice so people on both sides had enough warning?”