Assistance for Drought-Damaged Roads Could be Hard to Get

  • Published: November 21, 2016
  • ‘Hundreds of thousands of dollars’ in damage as drought impacts underlying roadbeds in North Alabama

    From | “Assistance for drought-damaged roads could be hard to get” by Russ Corey

    TUSCUMBIA — Cooler temperatures might help slow down the drying of the soil beneath Colbert County roadways and with it, the numerous cracks that have begun to appear in roads throughout the county.

    But if rainfall returns for an extended period, coupled with freezing temperatures, there could be additional damage due the freeze-thaw effect of water filling the numerous cracks county engineers say are caused by the extended drought.

    Colbert County Engineer John Bedford said it will be some time before the extent of the damage is known but he recently told county commissioners that it could be in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

    David Palmer, president of the Association of County Engineers of Alabama, said getting assistance for this type of damage could be difficult.

    “FEMA in particular has just about made it impossible to get any emergency money for road work,” Palmer said.

    Palmer said officials with the engineers’ association’s umbrella organization, the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, has spoken to the governor’s office and the state emergency management agency about the issue. Bedford has touched base with the offices of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions and U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby. He also spoke to State Rep. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, and Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia about assistance.

    “I’ve reached out to the local legislative body in an email to see how they could work on it with the governor,” Bedford said.

    Colbert County Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Melton said he has not heard of any disaster declaration regarding the damage to county roads.

    “It’s going to take a while, due to the fact we’ve got no numbers,” Melton said. “We’ve got to get some idea of how extensive the damage is.”

    Bedford said the drought is drying out the soil beneath the roads, mainly in areas where the roadbed is mostly clay, which shrinks when it dries. The shrinking roadbed has caused longitudinal cracks to appear in many roads, even some that were paved in the past one to two years.

    Bedford said County Road Department crews spent last week sealing cracks on primary asphalt roads with a machine that was also used by road departments in Franklin and Lawrence counties. One area that was repaired was Colbert Heights Road up Colbert Mountain and County Line Road, which was paved about two years ago.

    Bedford told commissioner he will be using the machine again this week.

    “We’re still evaluating the roads,” Bedford said. “We’re going out and reevaluating areas we’ve repaired to see if the cracks grew out of the sealant.”

    Palmer, however, said once sufficient moisture is introduced naturally to the clay under the roads, it should “swell back up.”

    The cracks in the road, however, will remain and will be a conduit for water to get under the asphalt pavement and cause additional damage, especially if it freezes.

    The National Weather Service predicted sub freezing temperatures over the weekend.

    “If it turns cold and wet and freezing, that’s where the potential for some pretty significant events could happen to our roads,” Melton said.

    Another problem that has started to appear is cracks where the road surface meets the shoulder, Bedford said.

    Bedford said county engineers will likely have to fight to get attention to the problems they are facing.

    “I still believe the damage we’re seeing is as significant as a flood, but it’s so widespread it’s not catching the public’s eye as if a bridge blew out.”

    Bedford said he’s spoken to a dozen county engineers who are seeing similar damage. Palmer said the damage is spread out all across north Alabama, especially in areas that have soil with a high clay content.

    Bedford said he’s going through his records to see when certain roads were leveled, patched or resurfaced.

    “If a crack had been there, we would have sealed it,” he said.

    or 256-740-5738. Twitter