DESERT CENTER, Calif. (AP) — Loren Primmer will have to take the scenic route for a while. But even Joshua Tree National Park’s beauty won’t make up for a commute that’s suddenly expanding from one to three hours with the collapse of a California freeway bridge.
Primmer, one of 200 residents of Desert Center, will be among those most affected by the shutdown of rain-battered Interstate 10.
But the closure will also affect cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles, which are directly linked by the busy artery that carries about 27,000 vehicles daily in either direction where the bridge failed.
To get to his job at a Coachella Valley casino, Primmer will have to take a winding detour along the edge of Joshua Tree for what could be weeks.
“I don’t have any other choice,” Primmer said Monday, a day after the eastbound side of the freeway washed out. “We have flash floods…. the desert can’t soak it up.”
Diana Valenzuela, a clerk at the Desert Center Post Office, said her usual trip to the grocery store on I-10 to Indio “normally takes 45 minutes — it will now take 3 hours.”
Late Monday, the California Department of Transportation concluded that the still-intact but compromised westbound span about 50 miles west of the Arizona state line could have a limited reopening within weeks. Work crews plan to shore it up — footing that once rested on ground had the soil swept from under it — and eastbound traffic could then use one of its two lanes, agency spokesman Will Shuck said.
While he did not have an exact timeframe for the limited reopening, he said, “we’re certainly not talking about months.”
Rebuilding the eastbound span would take longer.
That crumbled stretch of highway easily withstood its daily load of thousands of cars and trucks, but it failed when the pounding of a powerful flash flood scoured away land where the bridge was anchored, officials said.
Water rushing through a normally dry desert gully eroded the land around the bridge, causing one side of the eastbound span to collapse and forcing the closure of the westbound span.
While the bridge should have been fine if the flood came straight down the gully, this time it swept through at an angle that pushed the water to one bank, digging away the soil at the gully’s edge where the bridge reconnected with the road bed, said another Caltrans spokeswoman, Vanessa Wiseman.
Caltrans was not yet sure why the flow followed that path, but such redirections are not unusual in sandy desert soil, she said.
Nine inspectors fanned out Monday to check all 44 bridges along a 20-mile stretch of I-10 after a second bridge showed signs of damage following the storm Sunday, according to Caltrans. They also planned to inspect bridges across the large swath of Southern California where the remnants of a tropical storm off Baja California dumped unusual deluges this month.
When inspectors visited the bridge in March, they found no structural issues, according to Caltrans. The inspection report shows that the bridge had minor cracks. The only work recommended was to upgrade the railing, and that was done several years ago.
The span’s rating was 91.5 out of 100, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration. It was deemed “functionally obsolete,” a label Caltrans spokeswoman Wiseman said reflected not its strength or durability but the fact that its 1967 construction style requires motorists to slow as they approach.
Many motorists speeding through the desert might cross the bridge without knowing. It spanned a shallow desert gully, just 40 feet wide. Such washes, as they are known, streak the desert floor and flash to life as rains are funneled into them much like tributaries can swell a river.
The bridge washed out amid record rainfall in a usually bone-dry July. A total of 6.7 inches fell Sunday in Desert Center, the National Weather Service said.
One driver had to be rescued Sunday from a pickup that crashed in the collapse and was taken to a hospital with moderate injuries, the Riverside County Fire Department said.
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