Jackson workers slowly getting back to normal routine

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Normally, Jackson's public works departments are like family physicians.

They take care of the coughs and runny noses of the city -- patching the cracks in the roads, maintaining the sewer and electric lines, tweaking the chemicals at the water plant.

And that, for many, was reason enough to recognize National Public Works week May 18 through 24.

But on May 6, the night a tornado destroyed a large section of the city, the public works employees became the city infrastructure's ER surgeons. The city endured major wounds: The electricity was out in almost every household in town; important streets were blocked with oak trees; a water well was down; and, in general, the heart of the town had stopped beating.

More than three weeks later, the city's bleeding has stopped, but the cleanup and repairs still require a large amount of the city's manpower. Slowly, public works employees are getting back to their normal projects and daily operations.

Met the challenge

"What's more typical of the public works employees is that they may have to come in after hours, on a Saturday or holiday," said city administrator Jim Roach, a former public works director. "But they've never had to respond to something of this magnitude. And they were able to meet the challenge."

The street, sanitation, sewer, water and parks departments had spent a collective 1,700 hours on tornado cleanup alone as of last week. That meant 12-hour days for two weeks straight for many city employees, including Aaron Sykes, who was pulled from his wastewater duties to help the street department clean up the debris.

"It's no problem at all," he said of the extra work. "There's a job to be done."

"The extra work is for the good of the community," said Ronald Mitchell, another wastewater employee who was helping remove debris on Friday. "In a disaster like that, everyone comes together."

That type of attitude, officials say, has been displayed throughout the recovery.

"I'm ecstatic about the way, not only my departments, but the way the city as a whole responded," said public works director Rodney Bollinger. "I'm just in awe of the speediness of the recovery efforts, the brotherhood and the spirit of cooperation these guys worked with. It still blows my mind to see some of these areas, but it's getting cleaner every day."

The city's nine electric department employees have worked an average of 50 to 70 hours of overtime per man in the three weeks since the tornado.

A 'God's gaggle'

The electric department, managed by director Don Schuette, has perhaps shouldered the biggest burden since the twister.

On Wednesday, the department replaced the last of the 60 poles that were damaged. Thirty-one transformers had to be replaced as well as a "God's gaggle," as Schuette put it, of hardware.

All the departments have assisted in cleaning up the debris, but the street department has been particularly swamped in that area.

Steve Hendrix, the street department director, said about 700 tons of tree limbs have been hauled off so far.

In addition, another 300 tons of other debris -- tin, house materials, etc. -- have been carried away.

"We're finding stainless steel from the fire station all the way to Bent Creek," Hendrix said. "We've still got a lot of tree limbs to haul off from the Woodland area. It'll take a while to get all that out."

The local governments will get federal assistance to help pay for cleanup work. The federal and state emergency agencies, FEMA and SEMA, will subsidize overtime and equipment costs that are related to the disaster.

FEMA will pay 75 percent of those costs; SEMA will fund 10 percent; and the local governments, whether it be the county or the city of Jackson, will pay 15 percent, which can include in-kind and volunteer work.

"We won't have any problem coming up with our 15 percent," Roach said. "But when all is said and done, even after insurance and FEMA and SEMA money, we'll all have out-of-pocket costs, whether it's the government or individual victims."

bmiller@semissourian.com

243-6635

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