Rey León, the 45-year-old mayor of what is called the state’s “most-Latino and poorest” city, remembers the 1995 tragedy when eight people died after a portion of an Interstate 5 bridge was washed away by floodwaters on from Arroyo Pasajero during a heavy rainstorm.
Most of the seven people who died had left their restaurant jobs at Harris Ranch or a nearby McDonald’s and were heading to Huron (one victim was on his way to Avenal) on a March evening and were advised to take I-5 because State Route 269 a couple of miles north of Huron was flooded.
“We know if you are here from Huron that if it is raining pretty hard you are not going to waste your time to go on Highway 269. You are going to take the alternate and that’s what they did,” said León.
Two of the victims – Martha Zavala and Linda Angélica Muñiz – were León’s high school friends.
The residents of this city have to travel 28 miles out of their way or have to take and suffer the consequences of trying to drive on a road that has a flood.
Assemblymember Joaquín Arámbula
Thursday morning, León joined a handful of elected officials in officially breaking ground for a $30.1 million project to build a 15-foot-high bridge over the area that normally floods the roadway 21 days a year. Another bridge will be upgraded and another bridge will be part of the project that is expected to be completed by the summer of 2020.
León recalled family members and other Huron residents carrying buckets and shovels in a frantic search to find their loved ones.
“There was a lot of pain, and it took 23 years to lock down that funding,” said León, who explained that floodwaters force the city of 7,311 to feel isolated from the rest of the world. “Even a mediocre shower will flood the road.”
León said a small bridge over a canal near the flood-prone portion of the state route, which becomes Lassen Avenue, was called the International Bridge because “when it rains and shuts down, we can’t go anywhere.”
The road closure, he said, results in an annual $500,000 economic impact to the city, which is 96.6 percent Latino.
“Everyone will benefit from this project,” said León, “from the farmworker to the agriculture corporate owner to the businesses.”
Congressman David Valadao, R-Hanford, said he is familiar with the road and the flooding problems as a farmer in nearby Kings County.
“It slowed down the opportunity for real investment in this community,” said Valadao. “We’re finally seeing some progress.”
The project will consist of a main bridge that will span 500 feet of the roadway and be 15 feet in height. The existing bridge over a canal will be rebuilt to align with the new bridge. Another shorter bridge will be erected south of the main bridge to allow for equipment and crossing.
“A temporary detour will be built on the west side of the road to allow traffic to flow through,” said project manager Neil Bretz. “It will be a temporary solution.”
Work will also be done to ensure that floodwater debris gets channeled in the right direction, said Bretz.
If there is flooding during the construction period, which starts next month, the roadway will be closed.
Assemblymember Joaquín Arámbula, D-Fresno, said he experienced, as a doctor, the consequences of inadequate roads and bridges.
“The residents of this city have to travel 28 miles out of their way or have to take and suffer the consequences of trying to drive on a road that has a flood,” said Arámbula.
When the project is completed, said Arámbula, residents won’t have to go 28 miles out of their away when the Arroyo Pasajero floods.
Caltrans District 6 director Sharri Bender Ehlert reminded motorists to slow down at the construction site to protect themselves and workers.
Drama students from Coalinga High School performed a couple of musical routines during Thursday’s ceremony.
Measure C and State Highway Operation and Protection Program funds will cover the cost of the project.