PROGRESS 2024: The Highway Department Always Answers the Call

Published 10:07 am Saturday, March 2, 2024

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“Everything from the tree line to the tree line when you’re driving down the road. These guys have to maintain every bit of that. Any problem that happens there to have to maintain,” Daniel Lundy, Assistant County Engineer said of the Highway Department.

Patching potholes, blading the sides of roads, tar and gravel roads, clearing debris, repairing bridges, and total reconstruction of roads are just a few of the jobs that are full under the Chambers County Highway Department. They have 29 full-time employees.

Many have experienced the inconvenience and frustration of a closed road. As we drive past construction, we grumble. However, we rarely, if ever, look at a road that is open and normal and consider the work that went in to make it drivable. Maintained roads are taken as a given, but there are people who have to maintain them — the highway department.

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Technically, the department is split into crews that focus on a job, like a bridge or mowing crew. They are grouped by what people call in most about, typically. However, often the job done is the one that is most pressing at that moment. 

The people in charge of the crews are Operations Superintendent Mike Meadow and Assistant Operations Superintendent over Construction and Reports John Holderfield and Sam Copeland. While they are now supervisors, between the three men, they have heldd every job in the department. The department works with the engineering department under Josh Harvill, the County engineer. 

“We patch potholes on paved roads. We get potholes on dirt roads, we have to go out and blade dirt roads and crush run to the potholes on dirt roads. We cut bushes on the right-of-way all the time we mow the right-of-way,” Meadows said.

He continues, “We replace parts on the roads. We go out and take a road just really bad shape. We’ll plow it up and set it back down. And we’ve started here recently put the tar and gravel back on the roads, repair guard rails or bridges.”


Emergency Response

The men said they start their day in Harvill’s office making a plan for the projects that will be done. Often, that plan changes.

“It may change three or four times before we get to the bottom of the hill, you don’t know what’s gonna come in,” Copeland said.  

Along with maintaining the roads, the department acts as an emergency response. Harvill said they had plans for road and bridge projects throughout last year that they never got to do. When the tornado hit, every crewmember and supervisor was called out to help clear debris. Once they could begin the maintenance needed after the storm swept through the county, the flood happened. That meant months of projects had to be put on hold to help clean up and repair after the storm. 

“The next day was recovery mode and the recovery took two months to get everything cleaned up. But that’s what I did every day was cut up trees, haul trees off, and try to clean up the roadway. Fast forward a couple of months, we had the flood,” Harvill said. 

The typical schedule for the workers is four 10-hour shifts. However, if an emergency happens, they go. They work closely with emergency services to respond quickly. 

Harvill said the goal is to have someone there within 30 minutes for an emergency. He adds that fire and volunteer fire departments help them a great deal with emergencies. They may help cut and move a tree to the side of the road, but the highway department’s job is to clear it completely.

“When somebody wakes up to go to work and the trees in the road and they think our guys are just sleeping through the night waiting for 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. until they can get to work get out there, that’s farthest from the truth,” Lundy said.” These guys wake up in the middle of the night. When we left to go home, the phone started ringing then they didn’t go to bed that night.”


The Dirtiest of Jobs

Harvill started in the Highway Department as a part-time crewmember of Meadows and Holderfield’s patching crew. 

Patching a pothole is largely manual labor. A truck has cold mix on it, which is shoveled by a crewmember. The truck then tamps the mix down with a large metal plate. The truck moves to the next pothole and crew members shovel the mix, on and on. 

“I was a laborer, this is what I remember. ‘We’ve been bringing all this fill dirt and Josh, we want you to walk this road and pick up every single rock or root. Throw it over there off out of the way so we can get this road bladed up smooth,” Harvill said laughing. “That’s all I did every day.”

Recently, during the bad weather in the county, some crews were in the welding shop, shaving beams down for bridges.

“I wish you had some pictures of them guys coming out at 4:30. You could only see the whites of their eyes, that was it,”  Holderfield said. “It looked like they had come out of a coal mine.”

He added that after the crew had to work outside in the cold, some were fine with it because it got them away from the rust and dust of the welding shop. 

A job all young crew members have done at one point or another is clearing pipes. There are snakes involved, but not the kind you may think. 

“Sometimes we have pipes that have 30 feet of dirt on top. The only way for us to fix it without closing the road is we’ve got to figure out a way to do repairs to that pipe without digging it up. So we repair a pipe in place,” Harvill explained. “What that means is sometimes these guys with 40 feet of dirt in a pipe in the summer with snakes in it, they crawl through that pipe.”

At this point in the conversation, all the men nod and laugh, obviously remembering encounters with critters in those pipes. 

To do a bridge inspection and maintenance, you have to be able to put your hands on every part of the bridge, Harvill said. Sometimes they are not accessible with machines. So it is not unusual for crews to climb under bridges, to do work by hand. 

“If it’s on a dirt road, and it’s got brush and trees or a swamp, we’ve got to get under that. We’ve got to be able to touch it. They encounter anything from a lizard and a frog to a snake to a wasp. But if we don’t look at those bridges, and we don’t make those inspections, we can’t safely let people go over the top,” Harvill said. 

Copeland often gets complaints from the public about bridge closings, arguing that it looks fine. 

“They wonder how come they close a bridge. They ain’t been under it. It looks good from the top, but it’s not good under,” Copeland said.

However, Holderfield may take the title of the dirtiest a crew member has been. One day while patching the road with tar, he ended up pretty messy. 

“Sam had to bring me a change of clothes, and I changed clothes on the side of the road because the truck messed up and sprayed me with tar,” Holderfield laughed remembering how he had to finish the workday covered in tar. 

While they are in more supervisory roles, the men still operate machines, mowers, or shovels when needed. 


“We’re not just standing around” and Other Misconceptions

Safety is the top priority in the highway department. The reflective vests offer little protection from cars speeding through construction sites. When they go to a job, they cannot go alone. There needs to be someone to watch out for cars or other hazards while they work. So, when cars pass road workers, some of them may look like as if they are “just standing around,” but they’re not. 

“They can’t all get in the middle of that road. There’s a process that has to be looked at. We might have two or three guys standing, but it’s not because they’re not doing anything,” said Laraine Anglin, the engineering administrative assistant.

Surprisingly, the men agreed that the least liked job was flagging traffic. Holdenfield said it was boring and difficult having to stand on your feet all day. However, they also agreed that it is the most important job because it keeps everyone else safe.

Copeland hopes if anything is taken away from this, people watch for the orange signs and keep their crews safe. 

The main thing Harvill and the highway department wanted to communicate to the public is that they can’t be everywhere at once. That pothole that has been in front of your house for a week will get done, but there may be something more pressing in the meantime.

The storms early last year and the beginning of this year delayed planned work. Harvill said they were running chainsaws every day to cut up trees after the tornado. 

“We have to choose every day what we’re going to do, no matter what we do, there’s something we’re not doing because we’re doing something else. That’s the biggest challenge to explain to the public,” Harvill said. “I’d love to come to fix your problem right now. But if I’m fixing Jim’s problem, I’m not fixing John’s, Mary Sue’s and Angie’s problems.”

Harvill likens it to making mice traps. No matter how good the trap is, if you have too many mice, you can’t catch them all. 

They only have 29 full-time employees. In comparison, there were once 70 employees in the department. They can’t be everywhere, so they rely on the public to notify them of the status of the roads. 

“We welcome feedback from the public. We want it, we need it because we can’t ride our roads every day,” Harvill said. 

“Everybody’s problems are important. it doesn’t matter if it’s minor to someone. You know, it’s important to me, that’s what I put first,” Anglin said. 

Although the vast majority of calls they get are from people who are angry or frustrated. 

“They don’t know what it takes to actually get that back open. They just know it’s an inconvenience,” said Amy Edmondson, Engineering Office Manager. 

The women said the crews get it worse, as they have had people take down barricades, yell at them on a job, and drive through signs. But, they take the good with the bad. 

“You do get the occasional person that will call and say thank you. Those are those are worth all the bad calls,” Edmondson said.

Harvill adds, “In our community, specifically, we have really good people that give the shirt off their back…. How many times have you had people just cook stuff for you.” he said pointing to Copeland. 

There have been jobs where they never have to bring lunch because the neighborhood feeds them every day that week. 


Not For Everyone

Crawling through snake-infested pipes and standing out in the cold, heat, and all other types of weather takes a special kind of person. The men all said turnover is common due to the difficulty of the job. 

“When your job is to keep the roads and bridges open all year, generally that means you have to work when the conditions are not ideal. And that’s usually where our turnover comes from,” Harvill said.

They all agreed that the number one attribute they look for in an employee is a good attitude. The job is attractive for those looking for a four 10-hour day schedule, good benefits and early retirement options. 

“Don’t know of how many people over the years just come in. thinking this is a gravy job. You work for the county.”

Sometimes they will train someone for free then the employee will leave for more pay somewhere else. Personality decides whether someone can do the job long-term. 

Harvill said most people think they can shovel a pile all day. But, doing it every day is a different story. 

“You would rather have somebody that wants to be outside, someone that wants to work with their hands … for lack of a better word, play in the dirt,” Harvill said. 

When asked if there is another job the men would rather do, all said no. 

“Mike can walk out right now. Retired, full benefits. He’s not 50 years old. I was one of those money chasers, I regret it in a way, in a way I don’t because I learned a heap. I learned enough to realize what this place does offer,” Holdenfield said.


Taking pride in the job

It may be easy to see construction or road workers as uninterested or impassionate about the job. Likely, some of them are. But, the supervisors find that the people who are a good fit for the type of work they do take pride in it.

“A lot of people think that ‘they don’t care, they’re lazy’… We take a lot of pride in what we do. I do, and I have good guys on that team that do as well,” Meadows said. 

Holdenfield said he want the county’s work to be as good as any contractors. Most of their favorite projects have been ones they saw from beginning to end, like a road reconstruction. They not only take the safety of their crews seriously but the public too. They make sure that the roads are kept up and clear.

“We’re good people trying really hard, and we take a lot of pride in what we do,” Holdenfield said.