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Troubled bridges over water

PARK RIVER, N.D. -- Frank Nauman treads through 4-foot-high grass and weeds, swatting mosquitoes the size of horseflies while carefully stepping down the slippery embankment along the south branch of the Park River.

Walsh County bridges

PARK RIVER, N.D. -- Frank Nauman treads through 4-foot-high grass and weeds, swatting mosquitoes the size of horseflies while carefully stepping down the slippery embankment along the south branch of the Park River.

Traveling with Walsh County Highway Superintendent Sharon Lipsh and county bridge foreman Pete Matcha, he looks for flood damage to the 86-year-old bridge just outside of the community of Park River, a town of 1,500 in western Walsh County.

"That board's moved an inch since I last saw it," Lipsh says. "That's all that's holding it up. The piling's gone. Ice floe. That's what did it."

As she talks, Matcha climbs onto the 7-foot-high steel truss to eyeball the alignment.

"The bridge has dropped about 8 inches since spring in the northwest corner," Lipsh says. "That's a lot of weight."


The bridge has been closed since April, which has been the cause of considerable dismay to residents of Oak Ridge Estates, a development of about 15 homes in Kensington Township, who now have nearly a 5-mile detour to reach Park River.

"I get calls every week from residents," she says. "They want it open now."

Lipsh's goal is to repair and reopen the bridge -- along with four other flood-damaged bridges in Walsh County -- before winter. But she understands that time is running short and that federal disaster assistance money may not stretch to cover all damaged public property.

That's where Nauman fits into the picture.

Nauman, a bridge specialist from Illinois with 22 years of experience, is one of two Federal Emergency Management Agency technical assistance contractors working in North Dakota this summer in the aftermath of series of spring floods that hit virtually every county and Indian reservation in the state.

In recent weeks, he's inspected bridges in south-central North Dakota, as well as those in Benson, Eddy, Griggs, Pembina, Ramsey, Rolette, Steele, Traill, Walsh and Wells counties. His task is to verify disaster damage.

The inspector takes a series of measurements on, around and under the bridge, wading through water in his rubber boots, and then retreats to his four-wheel-drive mobile office, where he plots the information on a project worksheet.

He returns with a camera to record visual images of his observations.


The project worksheet is a tool used to assemble the necessary data to determine if a bridge or other project qualifies for FEMA assistance or mitigation.

Once that process is completed, the projects are prioritized, by county.

FEMA is working through a list of 2,700 project worksheets statewide. A worksheet can include as many as 10 different sites, said John Read, a FEMA public assistance liaison who is working this summer out of the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services office in Bismarck.

At latest count, about 1,200 project worksheets had been completed statewide.

That's part of FEMA's Public Assistance program, which helps communities recover from disasters by providing up to 75 percent of the funding necessary to repair disaster-related damage to public facilities, including roads and bridges. Under the program, North Dakota contributes another 22 percent, leaving 3 percent to local government.

A separate, but corresponding, program is hazard mitigation -- what it would take to prevent future damage from flood disasters.

On and under the bridge

Nauman's initial inspection of the Park River bridge, on 136th Avenue Northeast, about a half-mile north of N.D. Highway 17, reveals two damaged wooden pilings, one in the northwest corner and one in the northwest wing wall.


"We'll need to bring it back to pre-disaster conditions," he says. "We're looking at driving two piles. If we start taking off timber, it's more than pre-disaster conditions, and we'd have to look at it as a hazard mitigation part of the project."

Once Nauman completes each worksheet, he sends it off to FEMA, which conducts quality assurance and quality control reviews, including environmental assessment and historical significance.

Any bridge more than 50 years old requires a federal review of historical significance.

That also may make a difference in the kind of repairs that are allowed -- whether the county can replace old wooden piers with stronger metal ones.

The bridge was built in 1923 by Nollman Lumber and Contracting Co., Grafton, N.D., just 14 miles away.

"We have been working closely with FEMA to streamline flood recovery and speed up the inspection, approval, and obligation process to make sure counties and tribal jurisdictions are getting their funds as quickly and efficiently as possible," said Greg Wilz, Deputy Director of NDDES. "We estimate the total cost for all repair projects will be about $36.8 million -- we have obligated over $17 million so it appears we are closing in on the half-way point."

The process at this stop along the Park River takes about two hours.

Then, Nauman, Lipsh, Matcha and Read move on to the next bridge, the second of five stops during the day.

While it may be repaired and reopened within a few months, the ultimate fate of this bridge just outside of the city of Park River, is less than certain. It is just one of about 500 county and township bridges and 2,100 miles of roads Walsh County maintains.

Two years ago, county officials developed a three-tier road and bridge maintenance plan. This bridge is on the list of those slated to be phased out -- closed or abandoned, rather than maintained or rebuilt -- as they fall into disrepair.

Then again, if it qualifies for hazard mitigation along with disaster assistance, the county may have the money necessary to keep this bridge open as a vital link between the rural residential community and town.

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to kbonham@gfherald.com .

Park River bridge
Frank Nauman, a bridge inspector with FEMA, looks at flood damage to a historic bridge east of Park River on Wednesday. Herald photo by Eric Hylden

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