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California I-10 Bridge Linking Los Angeles To Phoenix Collapses

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In the Southern California desert, five inches of rain on Sunday turned a dry gully into a raging river, and that led to the collapse of a bridge on vital Interstate 10, which links Los Angeles with Phoenix. More than 25,000 cars use that stretch of highway every day - or did before the bridge failed. Brett Kelman is looking into what happened. He's an investigative reporter with The Desert Sun in Palm Springs. I asked him about the spot where the collapse happened - Desert Center, Calif.

BRETT KELMAN: This is a place where there's very little going on except for an interstate that runs through it. And you might go over this road without ever thinking twice until something like this happens.

BLOCK: And was anybody hurt when the bridge collapsed?

KELMAN: There was one driver whose car collided with the broken segment of the bridge, and he was trapped there for several hours. But fortunately, emergency responders got there in time and pulled him out of his car, and he was treated and he's OK.

BLOCK: And what happened? What have engineers said about what happened to knock this bridge out?

KELMAN: The general consensus seems to be that the water heavily eroded the dirt under one of the sides of the bridge which eroded the support of the bridge.

BLOCK: Here's what's especially troubling, Brett - and your investigation has borne this out - that this is a bridge that got inspected and was given a really good rating just last year.

KELMAN: Yeah. This bridge was given a 91 out of 100 sufficiency rating. Now, that's a rating of both the condition of the bridge and the suitability of the bridge for what it's needed for on a daily basis. The bridge also got an 8 out of 9 scour rating, which is a technical term for measuring how heavy it is - or how sturdy it is against floodwaters. So based on that inspection this bridge should've withstood all but the very heaviest of rainstorms.

BLOCK: It would seem that there would be a lot of implications here, Brett, not just for this stretch of I-10, but for bridges all around California, especially as you're headed into what's expected to be a really rainy season with El Nino.

KELMAN: Right. This is a bridge that was rated high, and it rained pretty hard and it collapsed. But we have, in our county alone, on just the I-10 at least 45 other bridges that are rated worse. And when you think that El Nino's supposed to dump a lot of rain on us this year - which is wonderful 'cause we need it - it does make you worry about some of these bridges.

BLOCK: What are authorities saying about when this bridge will be repaired?

KELMAN: I spoke to a spokesperson for the California Department of Transportation just this morning. They said that maybe by the end of this week they will have an estimate for when they will be able to partially reopen the bridge, which means at this point, no one knows if we're looking at days or weeks or months. And if you're a motorist that has to drive this route, there's no certainty at all.

BLOCK: That's Brett Kelman. He's an investigative reporter with The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, Calif. Brett, thanks so much.

KELMAN: Thank you.

BLOCK: Someone who's counting on that bridge reopening soon is Heather Garcia. She manages the Chiriaco Summit Travel Center on I-10, just west of the bridge collapse. On a typical day, they'd have lots of cars stopping.

HEATHER GARCIA: Maybe 800 to 2,000.

BLOCK: Today...

GARCIA: We've had maybe about 10.

BLOCK: It must be a little lonely, Ms. Garcia.

GARCIA: It is. We normally get daily mail delivery. They couldn't get through the barricades yesterday and were trying to make arrangements today. It does feel a little isolated, yes.

BLOCK: Yeah. Have you ever heard of this happening before around where you are of something happening to the road or the bridge and people not being able to get through?

GARCIA: No. Interstate 10 was new when I was a little girl. I think it was finished construction in '67 or '68, I'm not sure which, and maybe when it was built there was maybe a little more attention paid to the fast erosion that can happen out here in the desert. There are significant flood control projects that were designed in conjunction with the interstate construction, and, you know, we've known this, just us passing by, those dirt (unintelligible) have been eaten-away over the years.

BLOCK: Well, Ms. Garcia, thanks for talking to us, and all the best you. I hope you get your customers back pretty soon.

GARCIA: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: That's Heather Garcia at the Chiriaco Summit Travel Center on I-10 in California, just west of Sunday's bridge collapse. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.