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Cutting edge bridge building followed flood

April 8, 2013
By Sam Shawver ( , The Marietta Times

In the wake of the March 1913 flood 69 bridges had been heavily damaged or totally washed away along the Muskingum River Valley. Every bridge between Zanesville and the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers had been destroyed.

Portions of major roadways were also completely wiped out-the floodwaters rising to more than 25 feet over some streets in the Marietta area.

The great flood, and other lesser events since then, have affected how roads and bridges are designed and built to this day.

Article Photos

Photo provided by the Ohio Department of Transportation
A highway crew addresses poor drainage issues that caused flooding over this stretch of roadway in Gallia County.

"Historically the 1913 flood has had an impact on our entire department statewide," said Tony Durm, environmental engineer with Ohio Department of Transportation District 10.

He said a major portion of the state was decimated by the floodwaters that rushed through scores of cities and towns throughout the Buckeye State.

"So many bridges were gone and roadways severely damaged that the task for what was then the Department of Highways was to assess and determine the best ways to repair and replace those structures," Durm said. "In fact, that's where the department's Bridge Bureau originated."

Fact Box

After the 1913 flood:

Washed-out bridges were replaced with stronger spans, anchored to piers and able to handle heavier automobile traffic.

Development of reinforced concrete allowed faster, cheaper bridge construction by using less steel.

Many roadways were elevated out of the flood plain.

Highway design must now address projected flood levels before construction begins.

Most bridges are now inspected annually for any flood-related damage.

Source: Tony Durm, Ohio Department of Transportation District 10 and Times research.

He credited the designers and forward-thinking engineers of that time with recognizing the need for stronger and more flood-resistant bridges as automobiles were fast replacing the horse-and-buggy on area roadways.

"The 1913 period was not long before World War I, which was then followed by the Great Depression and World War II," Durm noted. "There were a lot of manpower and materials issues facing the nation at that time."

A new product introduced during those years-reinforced concrete-helped reduce the amount of steel needed to build roads and bridges.

"Steel was scarce and expensive," Durm said. "So they put a lot of manpower into mixing sand and gravel and casting the forms right there on site."

The widespread flooding wiped out so many bridges throughout the state that a fast solution had to be developed for rebuilding those structures.

"Ohio moved into the cutting edge of bridge design during that time," Durm said.

He noted prior to the 1913 flood covered bridges were fairly common throughout the state, most built between 1820 and 1880.

"But those bridges were just set on stone abutments-not anchored-so they simply washed away," Durm said. "One thing the bridge engineers did was to design concrete piers with bases in the stream, but offset and cantilevered so the new bridge decks would only be barely sitting on the old covered bridge supports."

That process saved a lot of time and money by using the existing structures instead of having to completely rebuild every bridge.

Durm said roadways were also an issue as it was well into the 1930s and 1940s before many roads had hard surfaces, making it easy for the thoroughfares to be washed away-especially those that were built along streams or through river valleys.

"Now when we plan for a new road or repair an existing roadway, we have to take the potential flood levels into account," he said. "We also do a hydraulic analysis first to be sure we're not going to impact flood levels upstream."

Structures like storm drains and culverts must also be carefully designed so that debris does not become lodged inside and create a dam of backwater during flood events.

Washington County Engineer Roger Wright agreed.

"When planning upgrades for our county roads system, we still have to show the 100-year flood elevations in order to qualify for federal funding," he said. "We use the ODOT manual when repairing or replacing bridge and drainage structures and design those projects to handle larger flooding events."

Wright said even bridges across minor streams are designed to at least a 25-year flood level.

"Of course on some smaller township roads there will always be drainage aspects we can't overcome-the township and county's pockets just aren't deep enough to do it all, but we do try to place rip-rap and concrete in flood-prone areas to keep roadways and bridges from washing away," he said.

Another result of past flooding is the requirement for annual bridge inspections, Wright noted.

"Those include checks for 'scour' marking that indicates undercutting during times of high water," he said. "If issues crop up during a bridge inspection we go back and make the necessary repairs."

Wright said while computer modeling and other technology are great tools, engineers can't design for every possible event that may impact roads and bridges along area streams.

"In the end, you can only work with Mother Nature-not against her," he said.

Durm added that the country has become a lot more dependent on transportation systems since 1913.

"There's no doubt the flood was hard on those folks who lived through it, but their lives were not as dependent on transportation as ours are now," he said. "Our transportation network has to be much more reliable today-the nation's entire economy depends on it."



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