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Tropical Storm Debby forces Sunshine Skyway bridge's longest closure

A third day of 40 mph winds keeps motorists off the Sunshine Skyway bridge on Tuesday.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

A third day of 40 mph winds keeps motorists off the Sunshine Skyway bridge on Tuesday.

It's our Golden Gate.

It's the welcome sign on our postcards: a landmark, a celebrity. People point to it from airplanes. They show it off to out-of-town guests.

But the Sunshine Skyway bridge is also, of course, a very important road to lots of people — more than 50,000 a day, to be exact.

And when the great bridge shuts down, for any span of time, it's a big deal. An hour is an annoyance. A day is enough to keep people home from work.

This, state officials say, is "unprecedented."

More than 48 hours of 40 mph sustained winds has left the bridge closed for the longest time anyone can remember. Opened in 1987, it replaced the previous Sunshine Skyway after its southbound span was hit by a freighter in 1980.

Thousands of people on both sides of Tampa Bay have woken up earlier this week to get where they're going, grumbling as they leave home before the sun comes up. They've forged their own detours, revisited parts of the area they'd forgotten about. Or they've stayed home, clocking in from kitchen counters and attending meetings via cellphone.

"All I can say," said Karen Raimer, a doctor at Bayfront Medical Center whose commute from Palmetto was quadrupled on Tuesday, "is I have a new appreciation for the Skyway bridge."

• • •

They don't like to do this.

The Florida Highway Patrol is, after all, in the business of keeping roadways as clear and open as possible. But safety comes first, said Sgt. Steve Gaskins, the FHP's public information officer.

Picture it: Someone's driving along and a gust of wind blows through. That person is startled and swerves. The roads are slippery. Another person swerves. There's a crash, and another. Then traffic is stuck as first responders try to navigate through.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out it could be a bad mix," Gaskins said.

When sustained wind speeds reach at least 40 mph, troopers shut the bridge down. The last time that happened was in 2001, during Tropical Storm Gabrielle.

That "long-term" closure was about eight hours.

People have asked Gaskins to make an exception. People need to get to work. News crews want footage from the top.

No way, he tells them.

He went up there himself on Monday. Alone in his Chevy Tahoe, he felt the wind push against the side door as it whipped past — not quite hard enough to push him into another lane, but certainly unsettling. It felt like his car was being knocked out of alignment. The bridge slightly swayed.

He stopped at the top. Below, white-capped waves crashed against the pilings.

"Drivers have no business being up there," Gaskins said.

He hopes people use the experience as a reminder. A major hurricane could shut down all the arteries to Pinellas County, leaving only U.S. 19 as an exit. The Courtney Campbell and Howard Frankland bridges were also shut down at several points this week.

The lesson? Evacuate early if the need arises, Gaskins said.

Any of those roads — including the Skyway — are actually evacuation routes.

Until a storm comes.

• • •

Barry Broder got up at 5 a.m. Tuesday, a jolting start to another gloomy, gusty day.

From his home in Bradenton, he took Interstate 75 into Tampa, hopped on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, then took the Gandy Bridge to St. Petersburg, where Broder and his wife own the Bayway Country Store and Butcher Shop on Leeland Street.

It took close to an hour and a half. It usually takes him 35 minutes. "I gave a couple people directions how to go around yesterday," Broder said. "I don't know how they made out. I haven't seen them again."

In the dozen years he has made the commute, Broder can only remember a handful of times the Skyway has been closed. Once or twice for weather, he said, and then for the unfortunate, occasional jumper.

"Not this long, no," Broder said.

Raimer, the Bayfront ob-gyn, stayed home from work Monday, expecting to ride out the storm there. When it was clear on Tuesday that Tropical Storm Debby was in no hurry to move along, Raimer conceded to the hour-and-a-half drive from her home in Palmetto to St. Petersburg.

She has missed more than the extra hours in her day. She misses the relaxing familiarity of her commute of 20 years; she misses watching the sun set over the water. If there were no Skyway, she's decided, "I think I would have to move."

In a few hours she would be on the interstate, looking at billboards and buildings with thousands of other displaced drivers as wind whipped across the empty bridge.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337.

Tropical Storm Debby forces Sunshine Skyway bridge's longest closure 06/26/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 7:42am]
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