The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) began endorsing Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE) in 1991. It all began, however, in 1989 at about the same time as SUE was getting its name. The story begins with a hurricane.

Hurricane Hugo slammed into the United States near Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina at about midnight on September 22, 1989. It was one of the strongest hurricanes in South Carolina’s history, and at the time the costliest hurricane ever in the Atlantic Ocean. Hugo’s destruction wasn’t limited to just South Carolina; it also devastated Guadeloupe, St. Croix, and Puerto Rico, and produced hurricane force winds across portions of North Carolina. The Ben Sawyer Bridge (see picture) connecting Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island, which normally turned from side-to-side to allow the passing of ships, broke from its cables. There was a massive amount of other bridge and roadway damage.

At the time of this event, I was working in the FHWA’s Office of Engineering in its Railroads, Utilities, and Programs Branch. Jim Carney, a much beloved gentleman who used to walk around the office in his sock feet, had just retired and his assistant, Jim Overton, was in charge of the office. Three other positions in the office were vacant due to laterals or promotions – the secretary, the emergency relief engineer, and the special programs engineer (the special programs were pork barrel projects, many of which were ignored by the DOTs depending on politics in the state). That left Jim Overton in charge, Bob Winans to handle railroads and utilities, and me. My job at the time was to keep up with Federal-aid regulations, policies, and eligibility pertaining to the more than 100 Federal-aid funding programs in effect.

Thus, when the hurricane hit, our office had no one in place to handle emergency relief, which became even more of a problem when the Master of Disaster (i.e., the Secretary of Transportation) went to the Carolinas and promised them everything, whether in compliance with Federal laws and regulations or not. He got lots of great publicity and actually did a very good job, but it fell to our emergency relief office to find ways to make it all happen. But, as I said, the emergency relief office was vacant. So, guess who ended up responsible for making all this happen? That’s right, Jim, Bob, and me! Bob handled damage to railroad warning devices and above ground utilities. Jim and I had damage to roads and bridges.

BUT HELP WAS ON THE WAY! More about that next week as Jerry Poston arrives to save the day! And what does this have to do with SUE. Stay tuned; we will get to that next week.

Subsurface Utility Engineering - FHWA