The volume of water Hurricane Matthew sent gushing down the Little River wreaked havoc on the area around the town park that shares its name.
The bulging river breached the ages-old dam, like it has before, and the overflow undermined N.C. 97 where it connects to the bridge over the river, forcing Zebulon Police to set up a traffic detour around the corridor Sunday.
N.C. Department of Transportation officials on Wednesday, Oct. 12, said they hoped to begin repairing the bridge in about a week, but didn’t have a definite timeline for when the span could be reopened, since their resources are being stretched in other parts of the state that experienced, and continue to experience, worse damage.
“We don’t know, at a couple other locations, what we’re going to run into,” said Reese Briley, Division 5 bridge maintenance engineer with the DOT. “We’re just trying to tie up loose ends and move to other locations.”
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Void to fill
The surging water turned what was once an earth-made approach on the west side of the bridge into a void about 20 feet wide and extending more than halfway under the roadway.
A picnic table from the park came to rest on the north side of the bridge structure, while trash cans and the bins that housed them were deposited in the woods to the south.
DOT had assessed the damage, Briley said, and its options for filling the hole – either by removing the approach section and filling from the top, or leaving it intact and filling from underneath. Ideally, he said, the water level would lower enough that repair crews would not have to divert the river flow around the site of the damage.
“We want to restore what was there, to meet or exceed what was there previously,” Briley said. “It is a primary route, a North Carolina route, and we’re going to try to get it open again.”
Until that happens, thousands of daily commuters are being diverted about 2.7 miles around Water Plant, Green Pace and Currin Perry roads.
“We did tell them there’s about 6,900 cars, as of 2013, that cross that bridge per day,” said Zebulon Public Works Director Chris Ray.
An iconic landmark
The fate of the dam at Little River Park is less certain.
A broad expanse of the stone wall failed and drained the pond above it, with the worst damage to a section about 20 feet wide at its center.
“I really does sadden me,” said Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny. “It used to be a mill and years ago, back in the day, they used to cut ice blocks and store them in sawmill shavings. That is one of the iconic landmarks of the Town of Zebulon – that dam and the water coming over it. I’m not very happy about it at all.”
Kenny Waldroup, assistant public utilities director for the City of Raleigh, said he wasn’t sure how old the barrier is, but that it has markings on it that read 1871.
“It was repaired both in (Hurricanes) Fran and in Floyd, when it was a water source for the Town of Zebulon,” Waldroup said.
Matheny said the town received grant funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help restore the dam after Floyd in 1999.
But that was before Zebulon entered into a merger agreement to receive public utilities from Raleigh.
“Now that (Little River) is no longer a water source for the town of Zebulon, or for the larger public utility system that Zebulon merged into, we’re assessing is there utility need to repair the dam,” Waldroup said.
As for the park itself, the water reached past the playground equipment and a bulletin board joined the picnic table and trash receptacles in being swept away.
Aside from cutting down a couple pine trees the storm left at an unsafe tilt, Parks and Recreation Director Greg Johnson said there’s nothing keeping the park from reopening once traffic is allowed to cross the bridge again.
“Overall, we came out lucky there and at all our other parks, all things considered,” Johnson said.