Huey P. Long Bridge the backdrop for many harrowing driving tales
Driving home from church in the rain some 25 years ago, Cathy Serigny was approaching the Huey P. Long Bridge when the only remaining windshield wiper on her beloved Chevrolet flew off, prompting her to seek divine intervention to safely cross the notoriously narrow bridge. "I asked God for a little hole to look through, and a little light appeared at the bottom of the windshield, just enough for me to see the side of the bridge and make it across," said Serigny, who lives in Westwego.
"I said, 'Thank you, God!' But my sister said, 'Why didn't you just ask God to stop the rain?'"
Serigny's story is one of many harrowing tales recalled by panic-stricken motorists on the Depression-era bridge as traffic is set to shift Sunday to new wider lanes as part of the $1.2 billion widening project.
The two new temporary 10-foot-wide lanes in each direction are a foot wider than existing lanes, which will be demolished and rebuilt. Once the six-year project is completed by mid-2013, there will be three 11-foot lanes in each direction, with inside and outside shoulders -- more than doubling the width of each side from 18 feet to 43 feet.
Originally designed as a railroad bridge, the narrow shoulder-less highway lanes were largely an afterthought. As vehicles have gotten bigger, the 77-year-old bridge has claimed its share of side-view mirrors while fraying the nerves of white-knuckled drivers.
Physician Keith Van Meter said he was crossing the bridge after making a house call about 15 years ago when he got a little too close to a vehicle in the other lane.
He said the car "zoomed past me with paint-thin clearance" and stopped in the middle of the bridge, blocking traffic as several burly men with welding masks got out of the vehicle.
"I thought, 'Oh, my God. I'm in for it now,'" Van Meter said. "I decided to stop in the middle of the road to block traffic so that I would at least have some witnesses."
The strategy worked, and the men got back into their vehicle, he said, and "disappeared into the night."
Westwego resident Ray Thompson, 71, who uses the bridge six days a week to commute to his job in Elmwood, was stuck in traffic on the gently swaying bridge a couple of years ago when he got the inspiration to record a country song called, "Riding da Huey P."
I sure hope that my nerves are strongCause, baby, I'm headed for the Huey P. LongDon't know why my knuckles turned so whiteMust be grippin' that wheel just a little too tight
Thompson said he's had his share of close calls on the bridge, especially when he drives his Hummer, which is nearly 2 feet wider than the Model Ts for which the bridge was designed.
"It's nothing to make a movie out of," he said. "Just the usual stuff about garbage trucks going down the middle of the bridge and people who feel like they have to pass you no matter how fast you're going."
Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts said the bridge was partially to blame for ruining a Sweet 16 dance he attended in Elmwood on an unseasonably cold night in March 1993.
It began to snow, prompting many West Bank parents to crash the party and take their children home early because they didn't want the teens driving on the bridge at night in slick conditions.
"Needless to say, we were all pretty disappointed," Roberts said.
Jefferson Parish President John Young recalled being stuck in traffic on the bridge as a train rumbled by on a windy day.
"I could feel the bridge swaying, and it was very unnerving, " Young said. "I couldn't move, and it felt like the bridge was going to fall in the water."
Mike Stack, a state Department of Transportation and Development administrator, said his driver's ed instructor wouldn't let him take the test to get a license until he made it safely across the bridge.
"When I was growing up, everyone called it the Huey P. Narrow Bridge, instead of the Huey P. Long Bridge,'' Stack said.
While many bridge travelers refuse to believe that the old lanes are really 9 feet wide, a bridge engineer recently took out a tape measure to prove to a reporter that the width is accurate.
Serigny, 67, said she took her first trip over the bridge in 1966 when she and her husband, who lived on the east bank, were looking for an affordable starter home after their first child was born.
"I said, 'No way. They can give us that house for free, but I'm not crossing that bridge every day,'" she said.
But the couple ended up buying the house in Westwego, and Serigny said she has gotten used to the bridge -- so much so that she views Sunday's lane switch as a bittersweet milestone.
"That bridge has so much character and there are so many memories, that it's really kind of sad," said Serigny, who posted a YouTube video of a trip over the old lanes to preserve the experience for posterity. "What can I say? I love the Huey."
Paul Rioux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3785.
© 2012 NOLA.com. All rights reserved.