Mennonite Volunteers Build Wooden Bridges Over Troubled Water in W.Va.

Jul 27, 2016

The floods that ravaged West Virginia in June wiped out hundreds of private bridges - bridges that provide direct access to homes. And over 300 bridges were wiped out from flooding last year, too. It usually falls to residents to rebuild.

West Virginia’s Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (WV VOAD) called on Mennonites to help by building wooden bridges designed to handle flooding.

An Impossible Task

When hundreds of private bridges in the state were washed away by flooding last year, state chair of WV VOAD Jenny Gannaway set out to rebuild safer, stronger ones at no cost to residents — even though many people said that it would be impossible.

“When we heard this can’t be done,” Gannaway said at a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony, "we made sure we got it done.”

Jenny Gannaway with a host of collaborators and invested parties celebrate the completion of the Adkins' bridge.
Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In remote and mountainous Lincoln County, Gannaway stands with residents, government and religious leaders. They’re on the wooden deck of a 50-foot long bridge that Mennonites from Virginia designed and built. It crosses a stream connecting a state road to the house of Chuck and Carol Adkins. It’s the 15th one they’ve completed.

“We’ve lived here 36 years; had my bridge 35 years,” said Chuck Adkins, or Preacher Chuck, as he’s known. He walks slowly with a cane.

“I took it for granted to walk across there to leave my garbage, get my mail, and carry my groceries until it was gone.”

It’s flooded several times around their home since last year. There were no disaster declarations, and that meant no government funding to help rebuild. Replacing this bridge is a twenty thousand dollar job - something the retired couple can’t afford. Today, Preacher Chuck stands next to a sign he asked the Mennonite volunteers to paint. In large, white letters it reads: Thank God.

Preacher Chuck walks across his new bridge in Lincoln County. It's been tested by flooding several times already and remains intact.
Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Tough Economic Times

A few ridges over - probably less than a mile as the crow flies, but several twisting turning miles by truck, there’s a machine shop preparing steel pieces of the next bridge.  

“I do the machine work for the bridges… just whatever they need,” said Bill Frye, the machinist who lives and works here.

Frye has piercing blue eyes, and a lifetime of cutting and welding metal has left him with leather hands and strong like an ox. For 40 years he’s been working here for the coal mines, but he said he hasn’t had a single job for two months.

“This is all I’ve got right now,” Frye said referring to the occasional work he does for the bridge builders.

Collaborative Key to Resiliency

Frye’s handiwork for the current bridge underway ends up on the other side of the county with a group of Baptists. Jack Cobb and other volunteers stand on either side of a stream that has cut a fifteen foot crevice between them.

With so many damaged bridges in the state, other religious organizations like the American Baptist Men are now stepping up to help. Cobb and his Baptist crew are retired contracting and engineering professionals from West Virginia.

“Mennonite Disaster Services built the first fifteen, so they provided a coordinator for us to train us on how to do the first one.”

Volunteer crew of American Baptist Men build a bridge in Lincoln County, West Virginia.
Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Cobb’s crew used a bulldozer clears the remnants of two washed-out bridges next to the creek. Many of the bridges washed away were made of trailer frames and wooden planks, or other recycled materials. Better ones might be cemented culverts. Cobb said the bridges the Mennonites designed are altogether different.

“These bridges are phenomenally well-designed. It’s exportable, with minor changes it could be 20 foot long, 40 foot long. And we’re complying with upwards of a dozen permits to get all this done.”

The Mennonite who designed the bridges, Johann Zimmerman, says cost, as well as a volunteer-friendly building process were important design factors. But the main challenge was how to make them resilient.

“Just about every one of these bridges is built in the 100-year flood plain; just about every one is going to be topped with floodwaters once or twice a year.”

Wooden-decked steel beams are cemented to bedrock on either side of the creek, spanning across streams so as not to catch debris or disturb ecology. The structures are quickly built, more easily maintained and more resilient than what they’re replacing. Flood waters like those that wrecked communities in June tested his design. All are still intact.

But he says the most impressive feature of the new bridges is the collaboration between organizations to make each one a reality.

“I have never seen anything like it before. To do a bridge across a stream usually takes a permitting process of 6-12 months. We’ve been able to cut that process down to 4 weeks.”

West Virginia Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster designed this bridge project. It’s the first of its kind in the country, this year it won a national innovation award. The Mennonite Disaster Service was an early partner. Other participating organizations include the West Virginia Department of Highways, local fire departments, the state’s Department of Natural Resources, the state’s Department of Agriculture.

Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Back on the bridge in Lincoln County Barbara Chalfant is a Presbyterian who is also participating in the project.

“When each one of us does a little bit, we can accomplish a lot,” said Barbara Chalfant back at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in Lincoln County. “The Mennonites have shown us the way and the 7th Day Adventists are coming up behind and doing an amazing job, and so the Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists,  Unitarians, Muslims and everybody else are going to have to come in and pick up the slack and get this thing done.”

Hundreds more bridges still need to be replaced costing thousands of volunteer hours and millions of dollars, but organizers in West Virginia like Jenny Gannaway remain undaunted. She printed the email she got a year ago suggesting the project is impossible. She says it’s still taped to her wall motivating her to press on.