Solving Problems

McMurry named Georgian of the Year for leadership during Interstate 85 bridge collapse in 2017

Russell McMurry headshotGeorgia Southern alumnus Russell McMurry is a problem solver. He graduated in 1991 with a degree in civil engineering technology and today he is the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).

He became the public face of GDOT after a fire caused the I-85 bridge collapse in Atlanta last spring. The commissioner received many accolades for his handling of that disaster, including his recent naming as Georgia Trend’s 2018 Georgian of the Year. He credits his educational and business background for his leadership efforts.

Professor Junan Shen, Ph.D., teaches most of the transportation engineering classes at Georgia Southern.  According to the Department of Civil Engineering and Construction (CEC) professor, there are numerous best practices in disaster response for an incident such as the I-85 bridge collapse. But he considers the most important, with a disaster as large as this one, to be problem solving.  “Most people know our program is focused on engineering and technology, and there is a lot of that. You learn to design any kind of structure and material in civil engineering.   However, in the lab, many of my students will make mistakes, and I allow them to make mistakes.  Most importantly, we want students to find the solutions to their mistakes on their own. Because when you go to work, you don’t always have easy solutions.  But you always have problems.”

During the I-85 fire and bridge collapse, there were numerous problems. Chief among them was that a major Atlanta transportation artery was out of commission. That fact was compounded because the old bridge plans couldn’t be used. The original beams from the 1980s bridge were no longer made. The GDOT team started working the Thursday night of the fire and had to work around the clock to redesign 700 feet of bridge, a monumental problem-solving task.

CEC Associate Professor Peter D. Rogers, Ph.D., said, “The overriding theme in all our courses is problem solving, because the good managers are the ones that can think on their feet. They solve problems and ‘put out fires’ as people might say. And I think Russell’s job is all about putting out fires. Figuratively and literally, in this case.”

Early in the crisis, McMurry decided that his department needed to communicate with the media and keep the public informed. He found it important to communicate regularly about the traffic issues and the rebuilding progress.

Engineering students at Georgia Southern are required to learn about communication skills, too. In fact, Gustavo Maldonado, Ph.D., also an associate professor in the CEC, was a member of the investigative team for a soon-to-be-published communications research project for GDOT.

“People will see your work through what you speak and write,” said Maldonado. “So, if you excel in communicating immediately, the public will see they are in front of someone knowledgeable they can trust.”

Jennifer Kowalewski, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Communications Arts, was the co-principal investigator for that same GDOT communications research project.

“GDOT did a good job communicating with the public overall. I think one of the biggest things in a crisis is to get information out to the public immediately. You had members of GDOT going on local news stations and radio programs to try to get information out about what was going on, and how they were trying to move traffic through that area,” said Kowalewski. “Unfortunately, with breaking news, things can change so quickly. GDOT would have to say, ‘Okay, we don’t know exactly what’s happening at this moment in time, but we can tell you all of our latest information.’ I think they really tried to get out in front of the news story, and let people know about alternative routes.”

McMurry did an outstanding job of marshalling different regional and state partnerships to rebuild the I-85 bridge in record time.  Problem solving and communicating went a long way toward that successful outcome.  Rodgers said, “So he uses his engineering problem-solving background and education from Georgia Southern. You combine that with his business expertise, and he’s got quite a few talents in terms of dealing with the public.”

McMurry, the problem solver, has stayed connected with Georgia Southern and supported the Allen E. Paulson College of Engineering and Computing through his work serving on the Corporate Advisory Committee. He was named the CEC 2017 Alumnus of the Year.

  — Liz Walker