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Effects Of Atlanta's Overpass Collapse Will Rock Southeast For Months


A city dependent on its highways is at a standstill today. A central stretch of Atlanta's interstate collapsed in flames during yesterday's rush hour. No one was hurt. Kai Jackson (ph), a stylist at a nearby hair salon, spoke with the Associated Press.


KAI JACKSON: What I heard was more like a big boom, what you felt sort of on the scale of an earthquake. Not that high on the Richter scale but, you know, maybe a two or a three.

SHAPIRO: Late this afternoon, authorities questioned three people in connection with the fire that burned construction materials stored under I-85. One suspect remains in custody. As Georgia Public Broadcasting's Stephen Fowler reports, officials are telling Atlanta residents to remap their routines for months to come.


STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: Construction crews have already started demolition work on the flame-licked interstate that sits north of downtown Atlanta. Workers were drilling into the fallen overpass to break it up so it could be carted away. Both directions of this stretch of I-85 are closed and will be for several months. Transportation officials say they need to replace 700 feet of elevated interstate and the support structures below.

The fire started yesterday at the end of rush hour. There were no injuries. Just getting around Atlanta is a lot harder now. Mark Maynard was parked at a Mexican restaurant just outside of the collapse zone.

MARK MAYNARD: But also we're going on vacation today. And my wife is actually walking our dog to the dog loft that's behind that building over there.

FOWLER: A simple trip down the road turned into an extra hour - one way. Atlanta's perhaps disaffectionately (ph) known for its long commutes, perpetual gridlock and a culture that favors driving over public transit. Even before the collapse, that part of the interstate was notorious for delays.

TOM SMITH: Georgia Department of Transportation was estimating something like 235,000 cars are traveling over that 20-yard stretch of 85.

FOWLER: That's Tom Smith, a business professor at Emory University. He says that Atlanta's commuters aren't the only ones that will have to deal with a shutdown. Trucking companies and other businesses around the region will have to rethink their strategies and deliveries.

SMITH: You've got, you know, major impacts that are going to be hitting several hundred miles to the north of us, to the west of us. So that's just going to be a logistical nightmare.

FOWLER: Speaking of logistics, the state Department of Transportation has already issued alternate routes. Public transportation has seen increased ridership. And no major meltdowns have been reported so far. Georgia State Patrol Commissioner Mark McDonough says in Atlanta and beyond, no access to one of the city's main interstates is now a way of life.

MARK MCDONOUGH: This is no longer a roadway that's going to be able to be used. This now is what? It's a construction site. And the access to the construction site is going to be paramount for them to get things in here and to get things out of here.

FOWLER: U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has ordered $10 million in emergency relief funds so the state can begin repairs immediately. City leaders are looking into old traffic plans for major events, such as the 1996 Olympic Games when scores of people flooded into the region, straining both interstates and surface streets alike.

In the meantime, local officials say they're prepared for whatever it takes in the months ahead. Atlanta, which has seemingly nonstop road construction, is used to rebuilding, after all. For NPR News, I'm Stephen Fowler in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAHALA RAI BANDA SONG, "ISTAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.

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