Shoal River flooding forces closing of several bridge crossings
CRESTVIEW — Okaloosa County was forced to deal Wednesday with rain that was supposed to have fallen elsewhere, and on Thursday rain that had fallen elsewhere created massive inconvenience as it flowed back through Crestview on its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
As county crews were assembling Thursday to survey the damage done by Hurricane Sally, which late the night before had taken an unexpected eastward turn and dumped more than 20 inches in some areas, word came that bridges were being threatened by rising floodwater.
The U.S. Highway 90 bridge over the Shoal River east of Crestview was the first to be closed, at about 10 a.m.
The Florida Highway Patrol decided to close the bridge based on input from engineers from the Florida Department of Transportation, FDOT spokesman Ian Satter said. The decision to close a bridge is made using several criteria on a case-by-case basis.
State Road 393, which runs south from the Florida-Alabama line and intersects U.S. 90, has also been ordered closed because of flooding.
Shortly before noon it was announced that an Interstate 10 crossing over the Shoal River about three miles east of Crestview would also be closed intermittently through the day. A news release from Okaloosa County spokesman Christopher Saul said each closing could be for an extended period of time.
Last on the list to be closed was the Shoal River crossing on State Road 85 at the south end of Crestview, which is the main artery to Niceville and Fort Walton Beach. Saul said in his email that once the north-south artery was shut down it would likely be 16 hours before it would be reopened.
The SR 85 closure, originally scheduled for early Thursday afternoon, was being held off as long as possible, according to County Administrator John Hofstad.
"We really don't want to close it if we can help it. We don't want to cut off that connection between the north county and south county," Hofstad said.
As of 4 p.m., the bridge remained open and under constant monitoring, he said. The hope was that the river might have crested earlier than expected and that perhaps its angry waters would begin to slowly subside, but any evidence of continued rising would force the closure.
Hurricane Sally, which was to blame for flooding Wednesday that forced the closing of large swaths of U.S. Highway 98 running through south Okaloosa County, was equally responsible for the overflowing river conditions.
The Shoal's headwaters are in south Alabama and runs 58 miles before eventually reaching the Gulf of Mexico.
After making landfall at Gulf Shores, Alabama, Sally turned east and moved through southern Alabama and Georgia. Among its impacts in Alabama was dumping large amounts of rain into the Shoal's tributaries.
The bridge closings brought back memories for former Okaloosa County Superintendent of Elections Pat Hollarn, who in September 1998 was preparing for an election when Hurricane Georges, another major rainmaker, came ashore.
Hollarn's plan to get election equipment from Crestview to south county polling sites was nearly thwarted when the Shoal River bridges were closed following Georges. She was forced to commandeer six county trucks and move nearly everything west and south through State Road 87 in Santa Rosa County.
"That definitely was a middle of the night operation," she said.
Other than the ongoing flooding, Okaloosa County appeared to have emerged in fairly good shape after Sally.
By 3 p.m. Thursday, some 10,700 customers remained without power. CHELCO announced it had restored electricity to more than 18,000 customers since Tuesday, and as of 3 p.m. less than 700 remained without power. In its 3 p.m. report, Gulf Power said it was working to restore power to just under 10,000 customers.
At 3:30 p.m., county Public Safety Director Patrick Maddox announced that a shelter opened for hurricane evacuees at Northwest Florida State College had been closed. Plans had been put in place to provide space for river flooding evacuees.
The county ordered a second day of curfew for residents living north of Eglin Air Force Base. The curfew would be in effect from 10 p.m. Thursday to 6 a.m. Friday
Peter Wright Jr., manager at The Ships Chandler in Destin, said the harbor along which he and hundreds of charter fishermen make their livings had emerged from the storm relatively unscathed.
"Overall everybody did a pretty good job, and the way the wind came in, from the east and then from the south, left us pretty well protected," he said.
Wright estimated water in Destin Harbor had risen by about 5 feet. That was high enough to allow it to spill out onto the boardwalk and into public areas beyond. But Wright said it appeared all the boats had survived Sally's onslaught.
Things could have been very different, he said.
"Everybody was pretty well prepared, but a lot of those boats, when that water came up higher than we suspected, were only about 6 or 8 inches away from drifting off of their lifts," Wright said. "I think this was a little bit of a wake-up call for some people, for sure."
A section of U.S. 98 running south of Hurlburt Field did wash out near the base's gate, according to County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel.
That stretch of asphalt in the westbound lane near the pedestrian overpass had washed out before, Ketchel said, and took about six weeks to repair.
"That really is an issue," she said.
On the north side of the county, several rural dirt roads were inundated by about 14 inches of rain Wednesday were unusable.
County Commissioner Nathan Boyles, who was keeping a close eye on the rising Shoal and Yellow river waters from his Crestview-area home, said work crews will have to wait until the roads dry out some before repairs can begin.
"There was a lot of road impact, I think the storm had more impact than what anybody expected, based on what we were seeing a couple of days ago," he said.
Of major concern to county officials was beach erosion, particularly in Destin.
Just this spring, the county oversaw the completion of an almost $3.5 million project to dredge more than 250,000 cubic yards of sand from East Pass and place it across almost a half-mile of severely eroded, mostly private, beach land on Holiday Isle.
Hofstad said reports from beach safety personnel indicated that Okaloosa Island beaches did not appear to have sustain a great deal of erosion from Sally. He said he had no report on the fate of Destin's beaches, but was hoping to see something late Thursday or Friday.
"We've actually put in an order to schedule a beach flyover to get photos from the air," Hofstad said. "I don't know when that might happen."
The aging buildings of the Okaloosa County School District seemed to have weathered the storm well, according to district spokesman Steve Horton.
"Of course there are leaks throughout the district, and we have power out at several schools right now," he said. "All in all, I think we came out pretty good."
Several trees did fall at the Shalimar Elementary School campus, Horton reported, and one of them landed on a storage building.
School was canceled for Friday.