The Hernando DeSoto Bridge, which carries I-40 across the Mississippi River between Tennessee and Arkansas, was suddenly closed on May 11 when engineers from the Arkansas Department of Transport discovered a fractured support beam during a routine inspection. Since then, new information has come to light revealing that damage to the bridge has been visible and evident as far back as 2016, according to reports from WMC5 Action News.
The bridge’s closure last week prompted amateur photographer Barry Moore to look through photos he’d taken on a kayaking trip through the Mississippi River back in August 2016. Upon examining pictures he’d taken of the I-40’s Hernando DeSoto Bridge, he found clear visual evidence of cracking in the beam that later failed. Speaking to WMC5, Moore noted his shock at the find, stating “The crack is past halfway up that box beam. That really took me aback.”
ARDOT drone inspection footage from 2019 contains a shot of the crack developing on the I-40 bridge.
The bridge was also inspected by ARDOT as part of routine protocols in 2019 and 2020. Drone video from May 2019 showed evidence of cracking in the beam, which was missed or otherwise not acted on by ARDOT inspectors. In light of the failure, the employee responsible for the 2019 inspection has since been fired, according to reports from WIBW. Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson made it clear that the state is reviewing multiple bridges in the wake of the failure, stating “Every bridge that this particular inspector looked at, or certified that is was in good shape, it’s going to be reviewed again. That’s the double check that we need.”
Multiple other amateur photos taken of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge show visible cracking as far back as 2019, reports WMC5. While it’s rare for individuals to scan their happy snaps for infrastructure failures, it might just become a popular state pastime in Arkansas, given the potential deadly implications of a major bridge failure.
With I-40 out of action, traffic has largely rerouted to the I-55 bridge, the other primary river crossing between West Memphis, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee. ABC News reports that ARDOT has requested an inspection of the I-55 bridge by TDOT officials, in an abundance of caution to avoid further incidents.
Maintenance of the bridge is a combined responsibility of Tennessee Department of Transport and Arkansas Department of Transport, with TDOT taking the lead on the bridge repair project, reports WMC5. Repair of the bridge is a complex job, requiring careful consideration of how to rectify not only the broken beam, but any damage to other bridge components that have been placed under excess loads due to the beam’s failure. The bridge must also be adequately braced to support the structure during the removal and replacement of damaged components. No clear timeline is yet available, but repairs will likely take months, according to reports from the Arkansas Times.
With a major river crossing down and out for some time to come, commuters and political leaders in Arkansas and Tennessee will be feeling the strain for some time to come. At the same time, many will be thankful that the damage was at least discovered prior to a major collapse. Much effort must go in to improving inspection checks and balances if such an embarrassing oversight is to be avoided again. After all, when bridges fail, people die.
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