There’s not much glory in patching a spewing waterline six feet below street level, but the pandemic didn’t eliminate the need to get the job done.
Patching water lines is just one of the jobs for public works crews. In El Campo, the department has seven people in supervisory roles with a combined 138 years experience among them. Twelve are assigned to the street department, 13 to utilities, six to parks, four in administration and two in vehicle maintenance.
They are an essential service, responding during the day and, when needed, at night or on weekends to get the job done.
“Public Works understands the role that we play. We are told that pre-hire. We work for the community. We work during emergencies, even a pandemic,” Public Works Director Kevin Thompson said. “It’s what we signed up for, it’s what we do. That does not mean there isn’t some concern for our safety. There is. But we are always prepared, and that helps alleviate some concerns.”
The very nature of their roles means working from home isn’t an option. When trees have been knocked down in a storm, when a road needs patching or a sewer line backs up, they have to be there, often shoulder-to-shoulder.
When a water line breaks, for example, the backhoe operator digging out the street can maintain his distance from others, but for the ones going down in the hole (generally made relatively small to make the subsequent road patch cover less area), it’s a tight squeeze.
“Unfortunately, this is a very difficult situation, where four hands are working on a tight situation anyway. Backup is your crew and cannot be done from a distance,” Thompson said. “Crews will typically stay as a unit and follow intense (Personal Protective Equipment) measures, washing or disinfecting hands as much as possible, keeping an eye on each other.”
Road crews have focused on two larger projects. “Sue Street was completed, and chip sealed. Lily Street was chip sealed,” Thompson said. “We have been working on trimming low hanging limbs and there is definitely less traffic to deal with.”
The city had road materials and repair clamps for water lines already in stock, so the shutdowns have not created an issue there.
The difficulties have revolved around the same issues as everyone else – getting PPE and sanitizers.
With the city leaders already looking at budget cuts as the result of decreased sales tax. Some capital projects are being put on hold, and crew work plans are likely to change.
“That being said, we still have an infrastructure to maintain, a community to protect and projects to fulfill,” Thompson said.
The city operates on a fiscal year starting in October and ending in September. Through the first half, crews have seal coated 198,100 square yards (about 31 NFL-sized football fields) and reclaimed 23,770 square yards (about four of those fields). They did it by ripping up the old asphalt, or layers upon layers of chip seal, grinding it up and then using the same material to rebuild the road.
“So far this fiscal year, Public Works has brought back from failing PCI (Pavement Condition Index, i.e. a road quality test) 7,000 linear feet of streets,” Thompson said.
Crews have worked with the Tres Palacios project, a wastewater lift station at the far east end of Jackson Street, water and sewer line extensions on Hwy. 71 South, south of U.S. 59 and along U.S. 59 feeder west of Hwy. 71.
More than 500 calls for service have been answered as well since the start of the fiscal year.
The pandemic immediately added to the duties of public works crews, Thompson said. “One of the first things we realized was the need to protect the public, so we implemented a deep cleaning disinfection protocol on all public spaces.”
Heightened cleaning continued in workspaces even after public access was shut down.
The next major job may depend or what needs repair next, and those efforts can’t always be scheduled.
“Public Works is by design an emergency response organization. Things go down, we step up. That’s what we have always done. That is why our Motto is ‘Always Ready.’ It’s on our caps,” Thompson said.
The city requests people keep in mind the efforts of Public Works workers, or maybe even offer a thank you during Public Works Week from May 17 to May 23.