A devastating storm
On September 28, 2022, Hurricane Ian hit Florida’s southwestern coast as a Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph. Its damaging winds and catastrophic storm surge claimed more than 150 lives and caused $112 billion in damage. It also washed away portions of Sanibel Causeway, a 3-mile series of bridges, leaving some locals stranded on Sanibel and Captiva Islands.
“Pictures don’t really do it justice,” said Superior Construction Central Florida Division Manager Ryan Hamrick, who led the Sanibel emergency repairs joint-venture team. “Seeing it with your own eyes gives you a great appreciation for storm surge and what it can do to the structures we build every day.”
It was critical to reestablish the connection between the islands and the Florida peninsula rapidly so first responders could perform search and rescue, assess the storm’s damage, provide aid, and so that the island’s roughly 6,500 residents could return home. Furthermore, Lee County’s economy heavily relies on tourism. Timely emergency repairs were necessary so local businesses could thrive once more and the community could begin to heal.
As part of Superior’s work to reestablish critical infrastructure in areas affected by natural disasters, the company implements an emergency response protocol each time a hurricane is forecast to make landfall. Before the storm’s arrival, work on most projects in its path is suspended, and resources are diverted to affected areas.
Superior’s natural disaster rapid response protocol enabled its project management team to form a joint venture for the causeway work with the de Moya Group within 24 hours of Ian’s landfall. The team then assessed Hurricane Ian’s damage alongside Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) officials just two days after the storm hit.
On October 4, 2022, FDOT selected Superior Construction and the de Moya Group as its preferred contractors to complete the Sanibel Causeway emergency repairs detailed in the state’s first-ever phased design-build contract.
“Hurricane Ian devastated Lee County, and it was our privilege to rebuild a crucial piece of infrastructure for our fellow Floridians and neighbors. It’s not a task we took lightly,” said Superior CEO Nick Largura.
Creative solutions from a single-minded joint venture
Rebuilding the Sanibel Causeway required extensive collaboration from the design and construction team to address the project’s many environmental challenges, including securing crewmember housing in a disaster zone with limited access to supplies and food due to shuttered businesses.
“Things that typically aren’t a challenge on a job were some of our biggest obstacles,” Hamrick said. “Housing for crews, providing meals, delivering equipment and fuel to the job site, sourcing electricity — all of it required time and careful coordination. But our teams were ultimately successful because every single person on the job site was laser-focused on helping the community reestablish connection to the island.”
Due to widespread power outages and lack of cell phone service throughout the affected area, communication was one of the greatest logistical challenges the team had to overcome. To resolve it, the project management team linked to first responder phone networks, which helped keep everyone informed. Additional creative solutions included housing workers in mobile trailers at a nearby airport and transporting crews to the job site by boat until limited access to the vital infrastructure link was restored. They also grilled all meals on-site for the more than 100 crews working to rebuild the causeway.
A multifaceted approach to emergency repairs
To meet the ambitious deadline FDOT laid out, the team had to divide and conquer various tasks, including debris removal and repairing the island’s breaches.
“The approach there was to just pound the effort with resources,” Hamrick said.
The scope of the contract was extensive. Hurricane Ian washed away two large sections at the northernmost end of the causeway and severely damaged five approach slabs, causing sea walls to crumble around them. The most severe storm damage included a roughly 50-foot section of bridge span that collapsed into the bay and significant erosion on one of the causeway islands.
“The structure itself fared the storm very well, actually. The causeway was the part that took the brunt of the damage. Storm surge washed out the MSE (mechanically stabilized earth) walls surrounding those sections, and the approach slabs fell. We broke those slabs up, got them out of the way, and then refilled the sections leading up to the bridge,” Hamrick said.
His team’s multifaceted approach involved starting from the mainland and working outward. Close to 150 personnel from the joint venture alone repaired various areas along the causeway using marine equipment to bring in rip rap and other materials, excavators and loaders. Crews used temporary sheet piles to build back the travel surface, and they dredged up and relocated the washed-out material on both islands to rebuild the causeway.
“[It was] all hands on deck, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Everyone was working in the same direction: our crews, our JV partner, the designers, FDOT and its consultants, emergency responders, and local and state government officials. It was truly a team effort,” Hamrick said. “You’d like to say that happens all the time, but the reality is that sometimes it doesn’t. People often have their own agendas, but in this case, it’s clear that everyone was focused on the same goal.”
Their exceptional teamwork was instrumental in keeping the project ahead of schedule. On October 11, Governor Ron DeSantis announced the expedited repairs would make it possible for a one-time convoy of more than 350 emergency vehicles to safely cross the bridge and deliver power restoration equipment and supplies to Sanibel Island sooner than expected.
Reestablishing community connections
On Wednesday, October 19, the Superior/de Moya Group JV team completed temporary repairs, allowing the causeway to reopen to residents nearly two weeks ahead of schedule. Collectively, the JV team worked more than 36,000 workforce hours in just 15 days to accomplish this incredible feat.
“I am grateful for our dedicated team members who quite literally built a road in the Gulf in 15 days,” said FDOT Secretary Jared W. Perdue, P.E. “A project like this, under normal circumstances, could take months. However, FDOT, along with our law enforcement partners at the Florida Highway Patrol, Lee County and Florida Department of Emergency Management, made use of strategic and innovative techniques to rebuild the causeways quickly. Under Governor DeSantis’ leadership, and thanks to the hard work of hundreds of FDOT employees and contractors, we were able to relink Sanibel Island to the mainland.”
Kati Sherrard, FDOT corridors program coordinator and lead project manager for the Sanibel Causeway, credited Hamrick and his team with providing strong corporate support and securing what the FDOT team needed, when they needed it, throughout the emergency repairs.
“If the work product we receive every day is any reflection of his efforts, it’s outstanding,” Sherrard said. “I have never worked with such a cooperative and invested team.”
Preparing a resilient design
Upon completing the emergency repairs, the JV team shifted focus to long-term repairs needed to stabilize the bridge and allow permanent and unlimited access to Captiva and Sanibel.
The scope of this work included constructing permanent bridge approaches; installing resilient causeway protection with steel sheet piles, installing armor stone, restoring drainage, lighting and pavement markings; and providing access for utility service along the causeway islands. The team aimed to protect the natural environment from corroding shorelines while providing the community’s need for safe recreational areas for residents and visitors to enjoy the beaches. The goal is for the Sanibel Causeway’s permanent repairs to be substantially completed in October 2023.
The herculean efforts to restore access to Sanibel and Captiva Islands garnered national attention, with project features published in Engineering News-Record (ENR), Construction Dive, Informed Infrastructure, Engineering Florida, Bridge Design & Engineering, and many more domestic and international publications. The the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials named it the best quality of life/community development project in the medium-sized category for the Southeast region. Engineering News-Record also named Hamrick to its 2022 ‘Top 25 Newsmakers’ list for helping to lead the joint venture team.
Although the project tested Superior Construction’s ability to repair critical structures under even the tightest deadlines, through effective communication, unique design solutions, and forward-thinking technology, the JV team delivered quality results that rebuilt a community and exceeded the clients’ expectations.