The Bridge that Isn't
The following blog article is published with the permission of guest blogger, Judge David Langham. It was originally published on Judge Langham’s blog, Florida Workers’ Comp Adjudication.
Chevy Chase played Ty Webb in the 1980 classic "Caddyshack." A memorable conversation with the movie's protagonist, Danny Noonan, included a somewhat off-point quote. The point of it is that it is off point, an element of the eclecticism that comprised the Ty Webb character (and perhaps Chevy Chase generally). He said:
"The Zen philosopher, Basho, once wrote, 'A flute with no holes, is not a flute. A donut with no hole, is a Danish.' He was a funny guy."
I thought of that recently as I observed from great distance the Pensacola Bay Bridge (which locals refer to as the "3-mile bridge," as it is precisely that long; or was that long before it stopped being a bridge). My recent observations in January 2021 reveal gaping holes in the span, clearly visible from the shore in Pensacola. Standing and pondering, I wondered what Basho would say of a bridge with holes? Well, in the spirit of his observations regarding donuts, in the inverse, perhaps a bridge with holes is no bridge, but something else entirely? Hint, the hole alone does not qualify it as either a donut or Danish.
More than 120 days post-Sally, I look back now on the landfall. That storm became a potential risk to Pensacola on Monday, September 14, 2020, and a hurricane warning was posted. The courthouse announced closures for Tuesday and Wednesday. Following the OJCC disaster policy, Pensacola district office likewise announced parallel closure.
Tuesday dawned windy and wet, with periodic bands passing over the area. Deciding that Sally might pose a significant threat, I went to the office Tuesday morning to reassure of preparations, and to obtain some digital documents upon which to work in coming hours. That trip for me was a short seven miles; on a bad day it might require 20 minutes in traffic, but closer to 10 was normal.
As I drove north across the 3-mile bridge that morning, I encountered an FDOT Road Ranger truck with its yellow light flashing in the center emergency lane of the bridge. This is not an uncommon site. These individuals are on call for a variety of issues including accidents, breakdowns, and even the simple debris on the bridge.
However, this Road Ranger was outside of the truck, had crossed the lanes of traffic to the east, and was leaning over the bridge rail looking downward. My first reaction was curiosity. Within less than a quarter of a mile I happened upon a Pensacola Police Department cruiser likewise situated in the center lane of the bridge. Just as I passed, that vehicles emergency lights came on and the officer likewise exited the vehicle, crossed to the rail behind me, and peered over.
At the time, my immediate concern was that the authorities would close the bridge. Whenever the winds become sufficiently strong, they close the bridge. It has been a manual process but has evolved like so much else to rely upon technology. The FDOT decision is founded upon the conclusion that wind beyond certain parameters is unsafe for vehicle traffic. I have seen this occur similarly based upon wind in St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, and other Florida communities.
Having passed the commotion, I spent the next 3 miles to my office contemplating the probability that officials were either closing or beginning to contemplate closing this bridge. Knowing that my alternative route home was much longer, my time at the office Tuesday morning was very abbreviated. Within an hour, I was back in the car and headed for home. Unfortunately, I found the bridge indeed closed.
As I sat moments later at a traffic signal, I received a text from a friend telling me a rumor that the bridge had closed because it had been struck by a construction barge. That seemed a rather incredulous potential, but the Road Ranger had been leaning over the rail looking at something. Why not a barge? Coincidently, the news later reported, and drone footage substantiated, that a significant portion of the 3-mile bridge had been damaged during the course of Sally by multiple barge collisions.
It is possible that the various barges in question began their escape conspiracy (by storms end 22 had made a break for it) about 24 hours before the storm made landfall. The result has been interesting. That fifteen-minute commute has become a minimum of 45 minutes, and 90-minute commutes are not unheard of. The 7 miles each way has become 35 miles daily.
This all came back to me one morning last week because the sound of pile-driving to which the community had once become so accustomed during the years of construction had returned, at 3:00 a.m. After 120 days, it sounds like there was serious repair work underway on this span.
See, this "new bridge" has been under construction for years now. There has been pile-driving and noise. There have been barges, and tugboats, and much to watch. In fact, what will eventually be the southbound span was opened to the public less than a year before Hurricane Sally. All traffic was diverted onto this span, both directions, while the old "deficient" bridge was disassembled and the second (eventually the northbound span) was begun. Just over six months after the new span opened, Sally came, and the structure was decimated. Going with "structure" now in the spirit of Basho (It is not a Danish - holes or not, but it is also not presently a "bridge").
There are perhaps lessons in the story. First, that nature may not necessarily be predictable. Certainly, Sally was anticipated in various Gulf Coast communities based upon the best efforts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The storm could have made landfall anywhere on the Gulf Coast. That is a reminder to pay attention when storms form. There is heated debate now as to what could/should have been done when to secure the construction equipment and protect the bridge. But recriminations and hindsight are not uncommon following untoward outcomes. Safety experts always perform analyses after accidents and strive to better prevent the next one.
Second though, it is a reminder that there is benefit to workplace safety in planning before; foreseeing the future is impractical perhaps but preparing for the potentials is a workplace obligation. The safety and accessibility of communities was at stake in this instance. But, in many instances, in many businesses, every day there is the need for both individual and collective safety. While we might admit that it is impractical to predict and prevent every accident, safety experts nevertheless strive to do so, and workers' compensation is a significant part of employee safety.
Third, there are a great many people who rely upon structures like bridges. When you hear that a particular bridge has a traffic count of 50,000 vehicles daily that may seem abstract. That is the estimate that was quoted in 2010 when the news reported a new bridge must be implemented within 6 years, which did not come to pass. While 50,000 may seem like a lot of cars on a four-lane bridge, it seems like a great many more when diverted onto a two lane road through the countryside, the only current alternative. Similarly, a business may rely as distinctly on various equipment or structure. And, as likely, on its workers. Safety is critical in maintaining productivity, and it is indeed "everyone's business."
And there may not be any real difference between a bridge (or whatever you might call a former bridge with holes) and any business. The fact is, customers, employees, and even communities rely upon businesses. Management that recognizes that and commits to the prevention of accidents, restoration of function for those who suffer accidents, and the return-to-work of employees are positive for those who depend upon it. In a general sense, that is the foundation of workers' compensation.
In the end, perhaps a structure (formerly known as "bridge," sorry Prince) is actually a metaphor. Perhaps if we consider how it might be fostered, protected, and restored upon damage it might teach us all a bit about symbiosis, synergism, and community? Perhaps in observing the impact of planning, accident prevention, and the restoration process of this structure, there is analogy to what a worker experiences in the event of accident? While the injury may preclude being a worker thereafter for some period (total disability), there is hope that time and effort will bring restoration or even recovery, and a return to function and productivity. Concerted effort will make that structure a bridge again.
Guest blogger, David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.