Written by Carol Fouke-Mpoyo
UCC Disaster Ministries is contributing $5,000 to an innovative, increasingly ecumenical "Bridge Project" in southwestern West Virginia that is restoring access and safety to residents whose small "private access" bridges were washed out by severe flooding last spring.
The floods damaged or destroyed 1,000 homes, also washing out 300 "private access" bridges, forcing people to take inconvenient detours at best, or to risk dangerous crossings at worse.
"Occasional bridge losses were common in West Virginia, but facing 300 lost was an especially difficult prospect," said Jim Ditzler, UCC Ohio Conference Disaster Ministries Coordinator. The conference includes West Virginia.
Residents of the region's hills and valleys rely on hundreds of small private bridges to safely cross the many creeks that thread through their communities, The bridges are their lifeline to work, school, the doctor's office, the grocery store and emergency services.
"The bridge loss had a major impact on home safety issues where residents were prevented from access to health and fire protection services," Ditzler said. One woman drowned last July when she was swept from a car that stalled as the driver tried to cross a creek.
West Virginia VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster), whose members collaborate on disaster recovery effort, established a Bridge Project to seek solutions. Ditzler is a member of the Bridge Project Committee.
Partner Mennonite Disaster Service recruited a professional engineer to develop a basic bridge design to minimize costs and satisfy structural permit requirements.
MDS has now completed 10 bridges with another three in the planning stage. American Baptist Men will be "shadowing" MDS for the next week or two to learn best practices prior to initiating their own bridge construction program. American Baptist Men already have contributed funds to the project.
Other contributors to the Bridge Project include State Farm, Adventist Community Service, the Presbytery of West Virginia and Brethren Disaster Ministries.
UCC Disaster Ministries' contribution matches a $5,000 contribution from the Ohio Conference, which is aiming to raise $16,000, the estimated cost per bridge. "If we can achieve that," Ditzler said, "we will have an 'Ohio' bridge since the source of funds used can be identified in naming the bridge."
UCC Disaster Ministries Executive Zach Wolgemuth said, "This project demonstrates the effectiveness of committed collaboration and out-of-the-box thinking. Jim and I worked closely to bring this issue to the National VOAD members last spring in order to cast a broader net of support and the result has been engagement at multiple levels from numerous organizations supporting in any way they can. This is a very worthwhile project that is making a lasting impact on people's lives."
Individuals interested in supporting the WV VOAD Bridge Project may do so through the UCC's Emergency USA Fund.