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To Rebuild Bridges, West Virginia Turns To Mennonite Technology


We turn now to West Virginia. Last month floods killed 23 people and also damaged bridges across the state. Now as the rebuilding continues, a different style of bridge designed by Mennonites is proving popular - wooden and flood-resistant. Glynis Board of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports.

GLYNIS BOARD, BYLINE: Flooding is almost a way of life in West Virginia. Since last year, rising water has destroyed more than 500 private bridges. And after the destruction, it usually falls to residents to rebuild

JENNY GANNAWAY: First, we'd like to welcome everybody here to the - to our - another ribbon cutting. We came along ways from last December when we started our first bridge.

BOARD: That's Jenny Gannaway, West Virginia's chief disaster relief organizer. When these private bridges were destroyed last year, she set out to rebuild safer, better ones at no cost to residents, even though many people said that would be impossible.

GANNAWAY: When we heard you can't get this done...


GANNAWAY: ...We made sure we got it done.

BOARD: 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.

CHUCK ADKINS: We've lived here probably about 36 years, and then I had my bridge for about 35 years. And the water washed it out last July.

BOARD: Chuck Adkins or Preacher Chuck, as he's known, walks slowly with a cane.

ADKINS: I took it for granted to walk across - to leave my garbage, to get my mail, to have a way to get my groceries in. I took all that for granted until it was gone.

BOARD: There were no disaster declarations that covered these structures and that meant no government funding to rebuild. Replacing this bridge would cost at least $20,000, something the retired couple can't afford.

A few miles away, a bulldozer clears away the remnants of two washed out bridges next to a creek. With so many damaged bridges in the state, other religious organizations are stepping up. Mennonites from around the country are working with Baptists from the state, including Jack Cobb.

JACK COBB: This is phenomenally well-designed. And what's fantastic about this is this is a model that's exportable. With minor changes, this bridge could be 20-foot long. It could be 30-foot long. It could be 40-foot long.

BOARD: The Mennonites designed the bridges and created an easy-to-replicate process to get the bridges rebuilt and fast. And they're doing it differently. Mennonite engineer Johann Zimmermann says rather than building a complete concrete structure, they're using wooden decking and steel beams anchored to bedrock. It's quickly built, more easily maintained and more resilient than what they're replacing.

Floodwaters like those that wrecked communities in June tested his design. All are still intact. Zimmerman says the most impressive feature of the new bridges is not the design, but the collaboration between local, federal, private and religious organizations.

JOHANN ZIMMERMANN: I have never seen anything like it before.

BOARD: He says government leaders work together. to overcome obstacles.

ZIMMERMANN: To do a bridge across a stream usually takes a permitting process of six to 12 months. We've been able to cut that process down to about four weeks.

BOARD: This wooden bridge initiative in West Virginia just won a National Innovation Award. Hundreds more bridges still need to be replaced. Organizers like Jenny Gannaway remain undaunted. She printed an email she got suggesting the project would be impossible. She says it's still taped to her wall, motivating her to press on. For NPR News, I'm Glynis Board in Williamson, W.Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Glynis Board