JONES COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - County officials across the Pine Belt are dealing with panic after dozens of bridges were ordered to be closed, immediately, due to safety concerns.
That order issued by Governor Phil Bryant Tuesday includes 23 bridges in Jones County, six bridges in Jasper County and six in Wayne County.
The Jones County Board of Supervisors held an emergency meeting Thursday morning to discuss the issue.
"People are reacting and they are doing what they have to do, but I don't think they considered in all of the factors that should be considered in such a drastic measure they are taking," said Board President Jerome Wyatt.
On Monday, April 9 Bryant signed a proclamation declaring a state of emergency and ordering the Mississippi Department of Transportation to immediately close 83 bridges due to safety concerns.
A new list was issued Wednesday, April 11 showing more bridges requiring closing, with 23 of those bridges being in Jones County.
"To me, there was no advanced warning," County Engineer Ronnie Clark told the board in Thursday's meeting. Clark called the order an "overreaction" and it appeared to stem from a concern over local inspectors approving local bridges, that may not be up to the now-federal standards.
Many of the bridges in Jones County were inspected in the last six months, that inventory is listed on the Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction's website.
"Here's the truth of the matter, once they alerted us about the bridge replacement program, or splicing, that's the program we decided to do because we could afford that," said Wyatt. "We immediately asked for the engineers that were going to do the inspection to tell us, to visit with us and tell us, that if we splice the timbers and did the replacement, would that be sufficient."
"There was cause for that, because that had been done and they rejected it. So why would you invest four million dollars is something that you don't know whether they are going to approve?" Wyatt said. "And matter of fact, if they close the bridge, the only way it can get reopen is those same inspectors saying its okay to reopen it."
The Jones county board received an email from MDOT saying crews will begin shutting down the bridges Monday, April 16 at 6 a.m. However, there is no schedule for which bridges will be shut down.
Wyatt said the board does have plans in place to maintain and upgrade bridges in the county, but the funding is not currently available.
"We do not have the resources to do the replacement program, we are only doing something to help stabilize and make sure we can carry the load that we said we can on the bridges.," said Wyatt. "Doing the work, that's not an overnight thing and they had to be programmed, let out for bids, we have to wait for the bids to come in to tell who got the project."
When asked if what the Governor ordered was fair, Wyatt said "sometimes life is not fair."
Fair or not, the focus is still on safety.
"Our number one priority is to protect our people. That has to be number one and safety covers both sides of this argument," said Jones County Sheriff Alex Hodge.
The sheriff said those blocked bridges will create a serious barricade in an emergency.
"It absolutely will be slowed down and what we know for a fact is seconds matter. From the time the phone rings, to the time we actually arrive, whether its a law enforcement of other emergency service workers, every second counts," said Hodge. "Our response times are already greater than they should be with out staffing levels are low as they are, and then having to go outside the path. It's very concerning and it should be."
The Jones County Schools Board of Transportation will have an emergency meeting on Friday, April 13 to discuss school bus routes that could be impacted from the bridge closures. Superintendent Tommy Parker said of the district's 130 routes, it's expected at least 41 will be impacted.
"Matter of fact, some kids are not going to be served because in order for the bus to go to the detour route, they have to start at 4 a.m.," said Wyatt. "That is unfair, unsafe, yeah, so there are a lot of considerations that are not being considered."
Wyatt said after the closures happen, it could be months, to years, to reopen.
"It's not in our control and we don't see it in the very near future," said Wyatt.