Storm cleanup after tornadoes: 140 truckloads of debris

Published 9:30 am Friday, March 3, 2023

VALLEY — Chambers County’s highway engineer, Josh Harvill, and his assistant, Daniel Lundy, were guest speakers at Monday’s meeting of the Valley Lions Club. They briefed members of the club on the storm cleanup following two tornadoes having touched down in northern Chambers County on January 12th and what’s left to be done on the major project of widening the intersection of Phillips and Cusseta roads near Huguley Elementary School.

Two tornadoes were on the ground in Chambers County on January 12th. The same tornado that killed seven people in Autauga County and caused extensive damage around Lake Martin in Tallapoosa heading toward Standing Rock where it destroyed a mobile home and damaged several more homes before crossing West Point Lake and causing more damage  in Troup County.

Harvill said that 41 roads in the county were closed immediately after the storm but all but two were open by the end of the day. “We were able to do that largely due to a lot of volunteer help,” Harvill said. “It  makes you feel good to live and work in a county where people are that helpful. We got so much assistance from volunteer fire departments and citizens who just showed up to help in any way they could. When you go from 41 roads that are closed to just two in a matter of hours it really shows the magnitude of people showing up on their own when they were needed.”

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The two roads that remained closed were open the next day.

The many trees felled by the storm left a big mess to clean up. Harvill said that more than 140 truckloads of debris were hauled off.

The presidential declaration of a disaster played a big role of covering the cost to do this. “We were very fortunate in so many ways,” Harvill said. “If those tornadoes had come down in Lanett, Valley or LaFayette they would have caused a whole lot of damage.That’s what happened in Autauga County.”

Seven people were killed in Autauga County that day.

Harvill credits the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Chambers County EMA on having been extremely helpful to the county all through this crisis.

The Chambers County Highway Department has a total of 29 people. There are plenty of roads and bridges in a county with 599 square miles. Those roads and bridges need constant maintenance and oftentimes, major improvements. The department recently completed a $1.2 million bridge replacement over the Norfolk Southern railroad near Waverly. 

There are lots of road improvement projects to take place this year, a major one being the Phillips Road project. Planning for it ben in 2013, and it’s on track to be completed this year. Some new traffic signals have just gone in at the intersection. This is a $4 million project that should greatly improve traffic flow at the main intersection in the Huguley community. 

The widening of the road and the installation turn lanes is expected to ease a traffic problem that has been taking place for some time at Huguley school during the start of school in the morning and when the children go home for the day in the afternoons.

Harvill said that Phillips Road is busier than most people realize. There’s more traffic on the portion of road the goes from Highway 50 to the Interstate than there is on the stretch of Highway 50 to Highway 29. “Anyone coming from LaFayette to I-85 will turn there,” Harvill said. “This includes truck traffic going to the Huguley Industrial Park and I-85.”

The biggest factor delaying road projects is the weather. Construction work can’t take place during the rain, and there needs to be a drying out period afterward. “It costs us twice the money to work when it’s wet,” Harvill said.

Another problem is getting the mix needed for paving. It’s supplied by two plants in Lee County, one in Opelika and one in Auburn. The Auburn plant is undergoing repairs, leaving the Opelika plant under a heavy burden.

“I’d like to say the Phillips Road project was only a few weeks from being completed,” Harvill said. “I think we could do it with dry weather, but if we keep getting rain I don’t know.”

Chris Clark will be doing the paving, but he has to get the plant mix he needs from Opelika,

Harvill likes to talk about his staff and the good work they do. “Mike Meadows is our operations superintendent,” he said. “People like to work with him.”

Meadows is also the head baseball coach at Valley High.

Some student interns from Auburn, Michael Pigg, Maddy Johnson and Hannah Norris, have been good assets. Harvill credits Lundy on having done yeoman’s work on the Phillips Road project. 

Harvill said his department has experienced more than its share of turnover. Experienced workers often find better paying jobs elsewhere. Experienced people are hard to find for a place like Chambers County. “It’s hard for us to find them,” Harvill said. “We have to develop people.”

He thanked the county commission for their support of the department and for keeping them busy. “They have a lot of projects going on,” he said.