When Josh and Ruth Plumley first met they were teenagers. He would walk her home from church.
She lived on the other side the “hill”, she said. It is really a mountain. There are few “hills” is this part of West Virginia where the Plumley’s live, and the mountains are tightly knit together.
Later in life each left the community of Branchland, where they were born and raised, and pursued separate lives, that is until some 15 years ago when they both returned the “hills”.
Today they are in their early 80’s and have retired to a small mobile home that sits above a non-descript creek that meanders through the hollow.
The creek floods when the rains are heavy. But this year the creek flooded higher than usual and the raging waters destroyed their small bridge they had built 14 years ago, after they married.
The Plumley’s bridge was one of more than 300 bridges in West Virginia (83 in Lincoln County) that have been washed out by flooding creeks this past year.
All of the bridges are considered private access bridges by the state of West Virginia with the landowner being responsible for repair and replacement.
Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) has been invited to Branchland and other communities in Lincoln County to rebuild some of the washed out bridges.
Building bridges is a bit outside the box for MDS, which normally does disaster cleanup, rebuilding and construction of new homes.
“But it is not so far out of the box for us,” said Kevin King, MDS executive director. “A few years ago we built a foot bridge for an elderly couple in West Virginia who lost their walking bridge in a flood. This bridge lessened the hardship for the elderly couple who were living without a bridge.”
“MDS was remembered for that bridge and has now been called upon by the West Virginia VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) to assist in rebuilding some of the bridges damaged this past year,” King said.
“In another way, part of the character of MDS is all about building bridges between people,” King added. “MDS volunteers come from all corners of the church, while those we serve come from all walks of life. So, why not build some real bridges.”
For most people in Lincoln County these small private access bridges are crucial links, often from their home that sits on one side of the creek tucked up against the mountain slope, to the main road, across the creek.
For the Plumley’s, it is still possible to drive through their creek, until the water gets too high again or winter sets in, and this limits their ability to go to town.
“I am mostly worried about the EMT folks getting here,” Ruth said. “We are in our 80’s.”
While the Plumley’s bridge was shifted downstream, it is unsafe to drive on. Brandon Lovejoy, who lives a few miles from the Plumleys as the crow flies, which translates to a 20-minute drive,lost his bridge completely in the floods.
Lovejoy’s bridge spanned 60 to 70 feet over a creek that, when full, can reach 10-12 feet deep. Without the bridge, it is not possible to cross to the other side of the creek as the Plumley’s can.
Lovejoy has been allowed to use a bridge near his house, which is owned by the “gas company,” he said. “But I had to fix that one a bit to make it useable.”
The temporary bridge allows his wife Rose to get to work and his kids to get the school bus. They travel along Nine Mile Creek Road to reach the State road.
Johann Zimmerman, a Harrisonburg, VA, engineer who was asked by MDS to develop drawings for some of the bridges, hopes to move both of the bridges to more secure locations downstream with shorter span over the creek.
While all the bridges serve the practical purpose of getting folks to and from their homes, they also carry some history for both families.
Lovejoy understands the need for moving the bridge a bit further downstream, but at the same time would like it to remain in the same place as the old bridge- the place where he and his father, who passed away a few years ago, built the original bridge.
For the Plumley’s, they don’t mind the bridge being in another location downstream. They still have fond memories of the earlier bridge, which was built 14 years ago around the time they married.
What both families need now, like many others in this region of West Virginia, are new bridges that offer safe passage to and from their homes.
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