ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
By the end of October, a slow rain continued to steadily fall and create difficult driving conditions for motorists traveling Marion County roads.
“Mother Nature’s been nasty to us,” said Gerald Kelsey, road and bridge superintendent of Marion County. “It’s been about six or seven solid days now.”
When contacted last week, Kelsey said his office had been inundated with phone calls from people wanting rock on their gravel roads.
Kelsey estimated more than 200 calls came in during the last two weeks of October. And normally, he would receive 15 or 20 calls during that same amount of time.
“Our office has never received this many calls,” he said. “Even in 1993, when it was really wet. But the rains we had in 1993 were hard rains, and these have been slow and soaking rains.
“This has just gotten our road beds completely soft-all of them.”
Kelsey’s department maintains the asphalt, gravel and dirt roads throughout the county.
The asphalt roads were sealed last summer and in good shape, he said.
“We sealed 53 1/2 miles this summer, and then we blade patched some roads before that. That’s usually what we do before we seal a road up. And we try to get some of them partially ready for the next season if we can.”
In many places in the county, gravel roads were a checkerboard of pot holes and mud.
“Right now, I think the northern area (of the county) is probably the worst,” Kelsey said. “They had an 8 1/4-inch rain up in Logan and Moore townships when the rain first started. Of course, they’re all really saturated right now with the way it picked up the last week or so.”
This last rain has probably produced the “worst road conditions in a long, long time,” said Lee Becker, Marion County sheriff, agreeing with Kelsey.
Road operator Roy Davis was out working on a section of gravel road on Pawnee, between 230th and 240th, the end of October. He believed the road conditions were a consequence of the drought experienced this summer, Davis said.
“What hurts our roads is it’s been dry. And with everybody driving it, this limestone goes to dust and blows off. So when it rains, you’re down to the mud. That’s why our roads are as bad as they are-that’s what I’m blaming it on.”
When Kelsey addressed the issue of dirt roads after the slow rain, he said, “I wouldn’t advise anyone to be driving on them right now.
“But there’s some people out there trying to drive them and tear them up.”
The joy riding-called “mudding”-on dirt roads is a serious issue for Kelsey and Becker, they said.
“If you’re going out mudding, you’re going out in your vehicle just for the sheer fun of it and running through the mud roads,” Becker said.
“There’s actually one person who’s been charged with tearing up a road.”
Karen Hurt, secretary and office manager for the Marion County attorney’s office, said the offender was a juvenile.
“The statute was 68-545,” Hurt said. “That’s unlawful damage to a public highway.”
“If they’re out there on these mud roads, tearing them up, they’re going to be charged if they’re caught. It’s an unclassified misdemeanor.” (See side bar.)
Kelsey said he heard of another individual picked up by authorities for mudding. His reaction to this news was immediate: “I don’t know if they ticketed him or not. But I sure hope they did, because all they’re out there doing is trying to tear up the roads.”
Kelsey has a crew of 15 operators working for his department.
On Oct. 30, that department hauled 42 loads of rock to repair roads. “That’s about 850 tons,” Kelsey said.
The rock supplier for the county is Martin Marietta Aggregates in Marion.
“It’s a limestone rock,” Davis said.
Davis has been with the road and bridge department for 21 years and is assigned Caterpillar motor-grader No. 754-a machine he uses to maintain the same stretch of road year round.
“I’ve got roads all the way from the county line north of Tampa, and I turn around on (U.S. Highway) 56 down here,” Davis said. “It’s a long area all the way through here-about 120 miles.”
On the last day of October, Davis was using his tool bar to take out pot holes between 230th and 240th on Pawnee.
“It’s the Strassburg Road,” Davis said. “When they put rock down, then the traffic will blow holes in the road when it’s wet.”
His grader is equipped with a scarifier bar and a blade. During winter months, he can also put a snow plow on the front to clear roads when needed.
“This scarifier bar scrapes the rock off and puts it back into the holes,” Davis said. “So actually, what it does is smooths down the road.”
When he finishes a section with the scarifier bar, he goes back and grades the area with the blade.
“The scarifier bar will leave little holes, little grooves,” Davis said. “And I always blade it, because I don’t want the water getting down in those little holes. I want those sealed off.”
On that last day in October, he spent about two hours trying to take care of seven miles of gravel road, Davis said.
He was in that particular section of his area because someone called Kelsey’s department.
One county resident, Joyce Weinbrenner said she and husband Don, of rural Lehigh, decided not to call about the roads near their home on Eagle, north of U.S. 56.
“Our roads are muddy, but they’re packed,” Weinbrenner said. “Usually, we take Diamond. But when it rains, we take (168th), the other road into Lehigh, right there by the cemetery.”
Weinbrenner said she drove Diamond until the recent rains made it too difficult to maneuver her vehicle.
“It’s got so many pot holes now, that you’ve got to drive very slow or it shakes your car apart,” she said.
Kelsey received high marks from Weinbrenner, she said.
“Gerald really tries hard. They usually come out and check the road, once you call in. They do a good job of keeping the roads up.”
Kelsey had advice for all drivers trying to deal with county roads during conditions recently experienced by motorists.
“Basically, what we have right now is one-lane traffic on a lot of these roads,” he said.
“And in most cases, a lot of people are trying to drive too fast. You can’t drive these roads that fast, because they’re going to have pot holes in them right now. And that’s going to throw the car completely out of the track.”
On the worst roads, Kelsey cautions motorists to keep their speed limit to between 10 and 20 mph.
“I know it takes a little longer, but you’re going to be on the safe side handling the vehicle,” he said.
He also cautioned drivers to drive in the middle of the road, where tire tracks have created a solid base.
“And even if you do meet someone, just slow down. Take one side of the track, and the other car takes the other side. As long as you keep one tire on that track, you’re going to be all right.”