It has been a long year for Steve Riehle, Hall County engineer and highway superintendent, and his crews.
Starting with the bitterly cold spell in February and March’s flooding disaster, Riehle and his crew have been repairing roads, bridges and culverts hit hard by this year’s erratic weather ever since.
His road crews are now out picking up tree debris from Wednesday’s storm, which pounded Hall County with heavy winds and rain. One gust reached 87 mph shortly before 3 a.m. Once the fast-moving storm moved through the county, it left behind tons of downed trees, broken tree limbs and branches and scattered property damages.
On Friday, Riehle said residents of Hall County outside Grand Island, Wood River, Alda, Cairo or Doniphan who have tree debris that they are unable to dispose of can place that debris adjacent to the road. Crews from the Hall County Highway Department will pick up the debris while they are in the area cleaning up county roads.
He estimated that the county would be picking up storm debris for the next couple of weeks.
Grand Island residents were busy taking their tree storm debris to two designated locations where the city will haul it away.
After the storm, Riehle said his crews were asked to report for work in the middle of the night to clean the roads of storm debris. They knew it would be a mess and would take time.
Riehle had strong praise for his employees.
“We called in everybody we could get who didn’t have a tree through their window or in the family room or fighting water in their basements,” he said. “We even had two employees that came in as soon as they covered their window with plastic and came to work to help us out. Shortly after the storm was over, we were out pushing trees from the road to make the road safe, but unfortunately, someone was out there before we were able to get out.”
Minutes after the worst of the storm passed, there was a fatal accident where a man was killed after his truck hit a downed tree on the road.
But Riehle said not only were his people out clearing debris, but throughout the county people immediately assessing the damage to their property and working to clear it away.
“It is amazing what people have done by themselves,” he said.
Because of the extensive scope of the storm damage, both the county and the City of Grand Island have had crews working steadily removing debris.
“We are going to be there picking up all the trees that are along the county roads,” he said.
Riehle said the county determined it would be better picking up the debris hauled along the roadside than to have designated collection points.
“It is an amazing amount of damage to all of these trees,” he said.
Riehle said the strong winds spared no trees, whether they were properly pruned to reduce the wind load on them or not.
“When you have a lot of leaves on the trees, they are like sails and catches the wind,” he said. “We got a lot of water, and it softens the root area,” he said. “We had some monstrous trees (cottonwoods) that were tipped over in some parts of the county.”
Riehle said the first priority was pushing the storm debris off the roads. Then they began fixing drainage concerns from the storm debris blocking drainage outlets before flooding problems occurred.
“We were trying to unplug culverts and solve drainage problems,” he said.
Drainage has been a significant concern for Riehle and his crew for the last four months because of the heavy rain the area has been getting. Soils are saturated, and groundwater levels are high, causing lots of runoff concerns. The flood damage in March was extensive to those drainage ditches, culverts, roads, and bridges.
“Each area in the county has its own unique problems,” he said. “Each storm seemed to have a different way of impacting our infrastructure and a different way on how the water comes at us in different parts of the county. We have chased them in all corners of the county to make sure the drainage is working.”
Riehle said his crews had identified many drainage problems facing the county’s infrastructure.
“I don’t even know the total number of drainage concerns yet. We are still going out and identifying what can be done to help this in the future,” Riehle said. “We have identified a number of weaknesses that we have to address to improve our drainage system.”
County roads are holding up well despite the pounding they have taken this year. “We do have some roads that we are working on around the Grand Island area that was hit pretty hard,” Riehle said. “If the roads were in good shape and had a nice crown to it, the water drained off. If the road was getting beat up from truck traffic or something, those are some of the roads that got into trouble.”
Riehle said the constant fixing up of the county’s infrastructure after the stormy spring and summer has delayed asphalting work on county roads that took a hit from the harsh winter.
“Our asphalt roads were clobbered,” he said. “Pretty soon we will be running into September, and the days we will have to patch those roads before winter will be few.”