Having started work at the Kiowa County Road and Bridge Department in 1988, Doyle Conrad succeeded Don Sylvester as the department’s superintendent in January 1997. He sat down with Signal editor Mark Anderson last Thursday to discuss a variety of topics concerning his future and the condition of the county’s highway department since the May 4, 2007 tornado. That interview follows in full.
Signal: Others have told their experience that night of the storm. What was it like for you?
Conrad: My wife and I left our mobile home around 9:15 after hearing the warnings and went to my son’s house several blocks away since he had a basement. I remember when it hit at first you could hear the straight wind and the hail and you think things are getting pretty rough outside and then you hear a boom like a bomb, and the dissipating air, like the thing is alive and breathing. Afterwards we went back to where our trailer was and it was just a bare lot.
Signal: You’re now renting an apartment in Pratt. What led to that decision to rent housing over there?
Conrad: The next day after the storm we were going down the road in a van with no windows. I borrowed money from a Pratt bank that day, the first time I’d ever done that. We were planning to rent a place over there since there was no place like that then in Greenburg. Mike Egging and his wife told us they were looking for someone to take in, and then Merle Rose brought his fifth-wheel camper for us to live in, which we did for the next couple of months on Egging’s property, about five miles west and five south of Pratt. We didn’t know what we were going to do after we had to give the fifth-wheel back. We ended up renting an apartment on east Sixth Street in Pratt and that’s still where we are.
Signal: Is there any chance you’d ever come back to Greensburg to live or retire?
Conrad: I hate to put an absolute no on that, but at this point in time I don’t plan on it. Where we are, we have a daughter and granddaughter in Pratt. We’re settled down and comfortable there. We’ve got nice medical facilities over there and doctors. It’s comfortable and convenient.
Signal: How would you characterize the differences in your job as head of the highway department since the tornado?
Conrad: Before the tornado you had all your equipment in order and you did the regular maintenance and did your normal routine. Since the tornado one of the biggest things is we’ve taken in 600,000 cubic yards of debris into our landfills. Staying in compliance with KDHE is a big job there. Getting equipment repaired and replaced is a full time job. Not having a shop here at Greensburg has been inconvenient. I’d hope we could be back into more of a normal routine in another two years.
Signal: In what areas in particular are you still behind?
Conrad: The big one is maintenance of our asphalt roads. I’m looking to have a big asphalt program next summer and try to catch up there.
Signal: It’s now 17 months since the tornado. How would you grade the county and city in the recovery effort so far?
Conrad: I’d hate to put a grade on that for any of us. Looking around Greensburg has been putting a lot into rebuilding and the County has made strides there also. The courthouse, fairgrounds are underway, the sheriff’s office and new jail are coming up and the hospital construction will be starting soon, and, of course, our own new facilities will get started in the next month or so. So there’s been a lot done. Is there still a lot to do? You bet. The whole area was a puzzle knocked apart and each day we put another piece or two back into it.
Signal: You used the Asphalt Zipper a year ago August to repair the street near the temporary school in Greensburg and you’ve also done some mowing of lots in town. What are some other examples of cooperation between the City and County, and how important do you think continuing that cooperation will be for the continued recovery of the community in the months and years ahead?
Conrad: We’ve been out during the summer patching city streets here and there and helped out pushing mud around the fairgrounds when the volunteers were here for the barn raising. In my department the City regulations haven’t been an issue until the City wanted detailed drawings of the temporary shop building that we were going to put up. I felt under the circumstances they didn’t have to be so stringent on a temporary building.
Signal: How important is cooperation for the recovery?
Conrad: The only way this community comes back in a big way in say 10 years is by cooperating. Neither side can afford to carry the ball by itself. It’s necessary for the commission to take a hard look at this situation and decide where road and bridge should cooperate with the City. They need to give us the boundaries of where and when that happens.
Signal: Not long after the tornado you indicated you were thinking of retiring within a year. You’ve since said you’ll stay on longer. What’s your best guess as to how much longer you’ll continue on as the head of this department, and how hard will it be to walk away from this job?
Conrad: I was going to stay just until last May and the commission thought it was “not a good time to change horses” in their words because of being tied into so many projects. So I’ll stay until this January at least, but as we talk today the commission and I have been talking, and there’s a possibility of my staying until 2010. There’s a couple of loose ends for me to tie up first though.
Signal: And those would be?
Conrad: I’ve got to be satisfied Ron Freeman wants that as well as Don Richards and Gene West. If it’s just a 2-1 thing I’ll turn it in at the end of the year. I need to go out with Ron in the next 30 days and give him a tour of what all we do and just ask him how he feels about me staying on another year.
Signal: You haven’t always gotten what you’ve asked of the commission in terms of equipment and salary structure for your department and have at times expressed your disagreement with the commission with emotion and passion. How would you describe your experience overall in working with commissioners over the years?
Conrad: I’d say actually in my own mind I try to stand my own ground and feel strongly when it comes to my employees. I don’t have one complaint about how my commission has treated me since the tornado. The storm took a little of the fight out of us on little things; we’ve had too many big things to worry about since then. The hardest battle for me to lose was over the comp time/overtime issue. That was harder to lose than over material things.
Signal: Any particular dealings with the commission you’d like to hand differently if you had the chance to do it over?
Conrad: On a couple of issues that I felt strongly about and forgot the system and lost big time. I think it was I wasn’t on my A game when I lost, like with the Zipper the first time I asked. They say the first one to get mad loses and that happened a few times when I didn’t keep my feet under me. You get mad and you give it up.
Signal: When you do leave this position, in what ways do you think you’ll be leaving the road and bridge department in better shape than when you took over?
Conrad: I believe we have made some strides on paved roads in the last 11 years. On the dirt roads and bridges we probably have as good a record on engineer inspections as any county in the state because when we couldn’t afford to do asphalt roads on the five-year plan we turned to bridge repair. Several times we took out little bridges and put in big culverts. There’s a lot of work to do and it never ends.
Signal: What do you think will be the biggest challenges facing your successor over the next 10 years?
Conrad: No doubt in that time the biggest challenge will be expenses, and what we do to maintain asphalt roads rather than tearing them up. Oil and fuel expense will only get worse. So you’re looking at maintaining 88 miles of county paved roads without breaking the bank. Energy costs are so volatile and I don’t imagine that will get any better after I’ve moved on.