In 2000, Kellie and Sean Whitcomb bought their first house in the pretty Green Lake section of Seattle. But as soon as they moved in, the Whitcombs realized they had a big problem. Their new house was situated next to Interstate 5, and the traffic noise was horrendous. “It’s a constant roar punctuated by the squealing brakes of tractor-trailers,” says Kellie. “We can’t have a conversation in the back yard, and inside the house the furniture rattles every time a big truck goes by.”
A Civil Engineer to the Rescue
It was civil engineer Erin Fletcher who made the Whitcombs’ house livable again. To them, Erin is a hero. She’s managing a $14-million project to build a noise-mitigation wall alongside Interstate 5. “Building a wall like this one is much more complicated that it appears,” Erin explains. “You have to figure out where to put it, which means all kinds of noise measurements to determine where the problems are. Then, you have to establish how tall, long, and wide the wall should be. And the soil must be assessed to be sure it can support a large wall."
Listening to the Community
But there’s more than just engineering involved here. As project manager, Erin has to respond to issues raised by many different public interests. “It’s always a balance between the best engineering practices and the aesthetic, environmental, political, and community needs,” explains Erin. “Initially, while the Whitcombs desperately wanted the wall, the placement of it worried them.”
“The first design,” says Sean, “called for a 14-foot wall that would be built about 5 feet away from our property. The whole back of our house would have been plunged into darkness. Of course the state had the right to build the wall wherever they wanted to, but Erin came out and really listened to us and got the wall pushed back 30 feet. We’re so grateful to her.”
Erin likes to solve problems and she thinks that’s what drew her to engineering early on. But, surprisingly, it was a film clip of a famous engineering disaster that happened near Erin’s hometown in Washington state that set her on her career path. In 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, pounded by a wind storm, collapsed into Puget Sound. “That film,” says Erin, “made me want to be an engineer and design bridges.”
Erin’s high school dream of building bridges has come true. In addition to designing noise-mitigation walls, she’s currently working on a bridge that will reduce traffic noise through sound-absorbing panels.
A Passion for Solving Problems and Helping People
Erin credits her mother, a nurse, as her biggest influence. “I’m really lucky to have a mother who pushed me to reach my full potential.” That’s why Erin now works with kids in programs that nurture a passion for engineering. “Engineering has given me so much,” says Erin, “a lifetime of solving problems and helping people. I just want to give something back.”