The Walkway over the Hudson is the longest elevated pedestrian park in the world, spanning over a mile between the Hudson Valley’s Dutchess and Ulster counties. Since it reopened in 2009, the Walkway has been a great means of commuter travel, exercise, and tourism for the region. However, due to the fact that the massive structure stands over two hundred feet above the Hudson River, with help from nearly 20,000 tons of steel, it is one of the worst possible places to be when lightning strikes.
As with anything outdoors, the Walkway is completely contingent on the weather. Although the bridge is mostly open rain or shine every day, inclement thunderstorms and ice result in closing it early. Employees at the Walkway, among them Mike Lopez and Jack Keiser, start out every single morning by looking at the local weather forecasts. Then, depending on how bleak the forecasts are, warning signs are hastily drawn up and posted on either end of the bridge for pedestrians to take note of before starting their routes. Today’s sign was no different, reading: “Lightning storms are forecasted for this afternoon. When storms approach, the Walkway will close and patrons will be required to leave via the nearest gate.”
While this warning is somewhat helpful, Lopez says that in the summer months the weather in the Hudson Valley is often too unpredictable to actually make a difference. “To be honest, there are thunderstorm warnings almost every day in the summer,” he said, adding, “Sometimes they hit us, sometimes they don’t. That’s why we have a system to get everyone off the bridge in case one hits without much warning.”
The occasional circumstance that Lopez described, where a thunderstorm rolls in quickly and powerfully and completely without warning, occurred last Wednesday night around six o’clock. “That storm was crazy. It was a downpour and the lightning strikes were huge,” Jack Keiser said. “We instantly had to start evacuating people.”
The exodus procedure that Keiser and Lopez described is as follows: as soon as lightning is spotted, everyone on the bridge is ushered out at the nearest exit. It doesn’t matter if you parked on the Poughkeepsie side of the Walkway and had just started back across; if you are closer to the Highland entrance, that is where you will remain until the storm passes. In extenuating circumstances, employees riding on various park golf carts and cars will shuttle people back across the bridge to their desired entrance, but space is very limited. Not to mention, the park employees are more focused on ensuring that everyone is safely escorted from the bridge.
“Obviously, the intention isn’t to strand anybody. But we have a system, and we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we waited for every person to go back to their entrance of choice. The lightning doesn’t wait,” said Lopez.
As with many sporting events, there is a thirty-minute rule for lightning before the bridge can reopen. For every strike, the count starts over. Dave, a member of the construction team who has been working for months on renovations for the Walkway, said that there was a day this July when the time was two minutes from being safe to head back onto the bridge…when another bolt of lightning struck and the thirty minutes began again.
“Construction is always dependent on the weather,” he said. “If the bridge closes, we have to leave too. And depending on the time when the lightning hits, we could be done for the day. We’ve had to make up some days lost due to storms this summer in order to keep on track.”
The numerous construction team members on the bridge are not the only employees affiliated with the Walkway whose jobs are affected by inclement weather. Lopez and Keiser still have to work, even when the bridge is closed; if anything, their job becomes more imperative, as they’re the patrolling members who have to make sure of everyone’s safety. The various food vendors on either side of the bridge, however, are very much affected by the weather. Laurel Adams, a Brandeis student who works at the Elsie’s on the Walkway cart, says that summer was filled with constant unpredictability – not always in a good way.
“It’s an awesome place to work, but if the bridge closes, we close too,” she said, adding that “my boss will even remain closed for entire days if the forecast is bad enough. It makes sense, because not many people walk the bridge when it’s gross out anyway, but it is never enjoyable to miss out on getting paid because of the weather.”
Her coworker, Victoria, conceded on the fact that it is sometimes hard to have a job that is so dependent on weather. “Our friends have jobs where their schedule never changes, and our literally change on a day to day basis,” she said. “And if there’s a week where the weather is always crappy, we could lose out on getting paid for that entire week. It’s just unpredictable and it takes some getting used to.”
Despite this, Laurel knows firsthand that the exodus procedures are in the best interest of the pedestrians. “I was actually caught in the thunderstorm last Wednesday when I was running the bridge and I was stuck near the Poughkeepsie entrance for almost an hour,” she said. “It was pretty scary, but the park workers got everyone off the bridge really quickly.”
When asked if anyone has ever complained to her about being stranded during a thunderstorm, Laurel shakes her head. “Yeah, it’s never fun to be on the Walkway when there’s a thunderstorm. But bad weather is going to happen, and it’s way too cool of a place to avoid going to on the off-chance that some lightning could strike randomly.”
Mike Lopez agreed with this opinion. “You can’t avoid bad weather, and so you just need to put the best plan in place. It affects everyone, but for the most part this bridge is open and available for everyone to enjoy.”
That they do. Today, another sign was in place, reading that the temperature in the middle of the bridge was over one hundred degrees. Did that stop hundreds of people from taking advantage of the Walkway? Absolutely not. The Walkway on the Hudson may be the world’s longest lightning magnet, but apparently it is well worth the risk.