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Saunders County makes progress on reopening bridges, but there’s still work to be done

If you ask Steve Mika, it was after a 2007 bridge collapse in Minnesota when bridge standards started to change.

For Mika, the highway superintendent for Saunders County, that’s when the journey began. Across the country, authorities were conducting new inspections and tightening up their inspection standards.

Replacing and repairing bridges is no easy task, especially in Saunders County, which, with 430 bridges longer than 20 feet, has more than any other county in the state. And with tougher standards being imposed, many of them needed new attention.

“What once was acceptable, then wasn’t” Mika said. “We had right around 100 of those bridges that we had to close.”

What followed was a decade of work, as Saunders County battled limited resources to repair or replace a flood of closed bridges. When the Fremont Tribune interviewed Steve Mika on the subject in 2010, the county had 45 bridges closed. Now, as another deadly bridge collapse—this time, in Miami—made headlines in March, Saunders County is finally catching up. Mika says that the county has five bridges still closed, with another few on minimum maintenance roads, which are considered low-priority fixes.

The March 15 bridge collapse in Miami, where a pedestrian bridge fell over a highway and left six dead, hasn’t prompted any immediate changes to regulations or inspections, Mika said, and Saunders County doesn’t have any bridges like the one that fell in Miami. But as Saunders County closes in on reopening its bridges, there is still work to be done. Many bridges in the county are considered “structurally deficient”—still open, but operating at a low tonnage and in need of repairs or replacement. The next challenge is to address those.

Saunders County’s highway department has planned 78 projects for the next six years, according to the department’s One and Six Year Plan. A majority are the replacement or repair of structurally deficient bridges. Nearly all of the 43 projects prioritized for this year consist of work on structurally deficient bridges, save for a handful of paving projects, according to public records.

Saunders County has replaced 10 structurally deficient bridges since the beginning of this year.

“We went through it and made a priority list of all those bridges and what we thought could be used to replace or repair them and we’re working right down the line,” Mika said. “The biggest challenge is probably the money side.”

Some of these structurally deficient bridges were were closed at one point over the last decade. In that decade, the county’s priority has been to reopen closed bridges—even if in a limited capacity.

“I’d say some of them that we might have just done some repairs to, just to get them open, are on the structurally deficient list,” Mika said. “They were closed, but at least they’re open now under a limited weight.”

While structurally deficient bridges remain open, they have relatively low weight limits, which are posted by each bridge. Those low weight limits might pose issues for residents, especially in rural communities.

“Some of these bridges that are 6 or 7 tons are basically closed to the farmers anyway because their equipment’s too heavy to get across it,” Mika said. “We’re working to get these opened up as fast as we can, or in a replacement system.”

For Mika, the hardest part of conducting bridge repairs is prioritizing bridges while taking into account limiting factors, like cost and traffic volume. Bridges that have higher traffic levels or that fall on emergency or bus routes will get higher priority. The five bridges still left over from last decade’s federal overhaul have been considered lower priority, Mika said.

“They’re low volume roads and they’re long bridges, and when you only have maybe 20 cars a day compared to another bridge that has maybe 100 or 200 cars a day, it just makes sense to do that one first,” Mika said.

In some cases, bridges might only affect a handful of individuals.

“I really feel for the landowners and farmers and the people living out there that have to go around sections, or on a long detour to get to a town or another property or something like that,” Mika said. “Every road is important to somebody.”

Often, the biggest factor affecting how bridges are prioritized is cost. The 43 projects listed on the one-year plan are estimated to cost more than $7.5 million, with the average project estimated to cost more than $176,000, an analysis of public records shows. There’s a wide range there, with the cheapest project estimate at $15,000 and the most expensive—a paving project—costing $1 million.

Bridge repairs are funded through county dollars, federal assistance and through a new program called the County Bridge Match Program.

The County Bridge Match Program is a state initiative, launched in 2016, that provides counties with funding for “innovative solutions” to repair structurally deficient bridges, according to the program’s website. Mika is part of a working group of highway officials from several counties that helped developed the program.

So far, three bridges in Saunders County have been replaced through the program. One other has been selected and will be replaced this year.

Federal assistance can also help, but brings its own complications, Mika said.

“We have three bridges that are slated for federal aid right now that have started the process like 8 years ago, and we’re not even there yet,” Mika said. “When you have the federal government assisting you, their standards are way higher.”

Mika expects that the five remaining closed bridges will be open in two years—though it will depend on funding. They aren’t necessarily the county’s top priority, Mika said. Because of costs and traffic volumes, other structurally deficient bridges are higher priorities.

“Along with the bridges, I have paved roads I have to keep up too, so it just depends on how much money I get for my new year’s, or next fiscal year’s budget,” Mika said.

Mark Traynowicz, the state bridge engineer, said that the new standards for Nebraska’s bridges came about after Nebraska’s Department of Transportation updated its bridge inspection manual, required that bridge inspectors get certified, inspected all of Nebraska’s 15,000 bridges and determined every bridge’s load rating, all around the time of the Minnesota bridge collapse. But he added that the collapse only played a small role in informing those changes.

“We realized we had some bridges in our inventory, mostly on the county side, that just weren’t safe to stay and keep open,” Traynowicz said.

Traynowicz added that he doubts that the Miami collapse will make significant changes to bridge maintenance in Nebraska, especially because Nebraska has no bridges like the one that collapsed in Miami.

“I would find it hard to believe that that’s going to change anything the way we do it in Nebraska, but I don’t know that yet,” he said. “If a bridge is open in Nebraska, it’s safe to cross.”

While Mika believes that the county is generally ahead of schedule when it comes to reopening bridges, he concedes that it’s difficult to ever truly catch up.

“These bridges, every day that goes by, there’s certain things that happen—there’s damage due to a flood, or a car might hit one or something,” Mika said. “We got a good start this year on having eight of them open already, but tomorrow you don’t know.”

The people of Saunders County, however, have been patient.

“The general public out there in the county has been very patient,” Mika said. “If I had the money, this would have been done a long time ago, but everything’s on a schedule and we’re trying to get everything opened up in a timely manner as fast as we can.”

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Former combat nurse to be featured in TV program

Fifty years after she served as a combat nurse in Vietnam, Cheryl Feala will talk about her experiences on television.

The North Bend woman will be featured in a segment called “Gentle Valor” during the program “Nebraska Stories,” which airs at 8 tonight on NET, Nebraska’s PBS and NPR stations.

In 1968, Feala served in the U.S. Army and was stationed in a field hospital at Chu Lai just 55 miles from the demilitarized zone. Feala was 21 when she went to Vietnam, where she worked in the emergency room and minor surgery. Others worked in major surgery.

Last May, Feala was part of the largest group of Vietnam veterans from any state to go to the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., and was among 650 vets from Nebraska to make the Honor Flight trip.

Feala’s participation in the Honor Flight trip may have led to the NET episode. Feala said she’s far from the only nurse to serve during the war and that others could have been chosen.

“I know there are many other female nurses to talk to,” she said. “Because of the flight, people knew my name. There wasn’t anything special about what I did.”

She gave careful consideration to becoming the subject of an interview.

“I gave it a lot of thought before agreeing to be interviewed,” she said. “I was reminded that without knowing about the past, it’s hard to understand the present so I decided it (the interview) must be a good thing. … I was beginning to understand that after 50 years people might have an interest in hearing about the Vietnam veterans’ experiences.”

In a May 2017 interview with the Fremont Tribune, Feala shared some of her experiences. She talked about wounded soldiers being brought by helicopters to the hospital. They could bring in six wounded soldiers — or 25.

Corpsman took the wounded to the emergency room. If doctors were in surgery, medical staff triaged the wounded.

Almost every soldier needed an IV, because they were dehydrated or had lost blood and body fluids. It wasn’t uncommon to give IVs in the soldiers’ necks, due to damage in other places on their bodies.

South Vietnamese soldiers came in and, occasionally, a Viet Cong soldier. Enemy soldiers were stabilized until they could be taken elsewhere.

Sometimes, they treated civilians, particularly children, injured by shelling or for a medical issue. Although the hospital wasn’t set up to take care of children, staff improvised.

An oxygen tube would put through the bottom of a paper Dixie cup. The cup then could be put over a child’s face if the little one needed oxygen.

In the beginning, Feala and other medical staff worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. Toward the last couple of months she was there, they got a day off.

There were 30 or more nurses and 10-12 doctors at the heaviest times.

Feala found the TV interview somewhat stressful and was nervous. She will see the interview for the first time tonight.

What does she hope viewers come away with after seeing the interview?

“There’s a part of me that kind of hopes they understand that women are a part of these wars and today women are a bigger part than they used to be,” she said. “I think it used to be like a pioneering phase where women were worked into certain situations and now it seems more common.

“But even 50 years ago, women were a part of the war in a way that they could help.”

She knows many Vietnam veterans won’t choose to share their stories.

“After 50 years — after being under the radar and not wanting to talk — there are a lot of veterans who don’t want to talk and they never will, because of the things they experienced,” she said.

Tammy Real-McKeighan, Fremont Tribune 

Cheryl Feala of rural North Bend remembers her days as a nurse during the Vietnam War. She worked in a U.S. field hospital near the village of Chu Lai.

Brent Wasenius / Evan Nordstrom / Fremont Tribune 

Thunder Myers of Fremont Bergan watches his putt roll toward the hole during the Douglas County West Invitational on Wednesday morning at The Pines Country Club in Valley. 

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Park board reviews planned friendship center upgrades

There’s always room for improvement.

And during a Monday night meeting, members of the Fremont Parks and Recreation Department advisory board discussed planned upgrades to the Fremont Friendship Center and suggested improvements for local parks.

Kim Koski, the parks and recreation department director, talked about grant funding received for projects at the friendship center on the west side of town.

With the help of Lottie Mitchell, the City of Fremont’s grant coordinator, the city applied for a grant through the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

“We were awarded $200,000 and the city’s portion is a $40,000 match, so we have a total of $240,000,” Koski said.

The funds will be used to make Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) updates to the restrooms at the friendship center, where senior citizens go for lunch and various activities.

“We’re hoping to replace the flooring in the entire friendship center. It just depends on how far the $240,000 goes,” Koski told the Tribune.

Other plans include putting a canopy over entrance to the friendship center to match one at the Christensen Field main arena, but on a smaller scale, she said.

Koski also said plans are to install elevated stools in the restrooms, more grab bars, and to have motion sensors on faucets and soap dispensers and paper towels for patrons who might have issues such as arthritis in their hands that prevent them from turning on a traditional faucet or soap dispenser.

“We also want to do some painting in the restrooms so there’s a contrast between the floor and the walls,” she said.

That contrast can be important in helping to prevent falls and accidents for seniors.

Per the contract with the State, the work needs to be completed by September 2019, Koski told the Tribune. The parks department is in the early stages of compiling a data sheet of what work needs to be completed. The job then will be advertised so contractors can bid on the project.

The board also reviewed park evaluations during its meeting. Koski told the Tribune that, previously, names of Fremont parks were placed on slips of paper and put into a bucket. Each board member drew the names of three parks to visit and make suggestions about possible improvements at those sites.

“I see the parks every day and we wanted new sets of eyes taking a look at them, and they provided us with their feed and input,” Koski said.

From that input, Koski compiled a list of several suggestions for 16 parks.

“There are way more projects than we have people or the budget to accomplish,” Koski said. “I wanted to let them know that some of them (the projects) are in the budget. Some of them are in next year’s budget and some will be future budgets.

“We’re trying to do what we can with the resources and staff we have available.”

Future strategic planning will take place to determine how to address the needs.

One of the more unique suggestions involved having weddings at Hormel Park on the south part of town and recently Koski did receive a request from a bride who wants to have her wedding at the park in August.

A suggestion, not in this year’s budget, involves adding a handicapped dock at Johnson Lake on the east side of the city.

“That’s something that maybe we could look at as a future project with possibly looking for more ADA grants like we got out at the senior center,” Koski told the Tribune. “That’s the big thing: checking out what grants we have available, and working with Lottie and seeing where we can find outside sources to match some of our money.”

Groups looking for a service project might want to consider helping at one of the city’s more natural, rustic parks, like Hormel and Wildwood, which is southwest of Fremont on Big Island Road. Volunteers could adopt a trail at one of these parks. They could pick up garbage, do some string trimming (like with a weed eater), pick up logs and make the trails more accessible – things city crews might not be able to get to.

“We could probably spend a month at Hormel Park alone and still not get everything done,” she said.

Also during the meeting, Koski talked about an Arbor Day observance planned at 10:30 a.m., April 27 at John C. Fremont City Park.

Koski also told the board that the final draft proposal of the Emerald Ash Borer plan will go to the Fremont City Council for adoption on April 10. The plan was discussed at an earlier parks board meeting and includes conducting an inventory of ash trees; making a map of where trees need to come down in city right-of-ways (between the sidewalks and curbs), under electrical lines and in parks; how many trees need to be removed during the next 10 years and what types of trees will replace them.

She also hopes that the Trees for Fremont program can be restarted to replace trees that homeowners lose to the insect in the city right-of-ways.

“We have budgeted $6,000 this budget as well as the next year to replace the removals we’re going to have on city property,” she said during the meeting.

Koski said she applied for a Clif Bar Family Foundation grant for $9,000.

“We could get $9,000 or we could get $1,000. It just depends on what they think,” she said.

The Emerald Ash Borer is an insect that infects and destroys ash trees and is in Nebraska.

In other business, the board approved:

  • Use of the Christensen Field parking lot, Ridge Road Trail and Hormel Park from 8:30-11 a.m. May 5 for the Fremont Cosmo Club’s annual Spokes and Sneakers fundraiser. The event will start at Christensen Field and participants will ride/walk to the Ridge Road Trail to Hormel Park for snacks and drinks and then return to Christensen Field. The fundraiser helps send 10 area children to a diabetes camp this summer.
  • Use of Clemmons Park (north side of the sled hill) from 9 a.m. to noon April 7-May 12 and 6-7 p.m. April 10-May 8 by the Happy Feet Soccer league which focuses on children 18 months to 3 years old. Practices will be held on Tuesday nights and games will take place Saturday mornings.
  • Use of Johnson Lake Trail and Shelter from 7:30 a.m. to noon April 21 by the Northeast Nebraska Community Action Partnership for a 5K-1 mile fun run.
  • Use of Miller Park for a concert and skateboarding activities by the group One Life Nebraska from 3-7 p.m. on July 14.

These requests will go forward to the Fremont City Council for final approval.

The park board’s next meeting starts at 7 p.m. May 1 at Fremont City Auditorium, 925 N. Broad St.