BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — Special assignment firstname.lastname@example.org
RESIDENTS of Orange Tree in St Thomas are convinced that the authorities will do nothing to restore the bridge to their community until someone loses their life while crossing the section of the Yallahs River which separates them from the main road.
The bridge was damaged by a hurricane many years ago. In its place are two wooden poles, held in place by pieces of old board and balanced precariously atop some river stones.
That's the structure that young children, the elderly, women and men alike are forced to use as they enter and leave their community to access services in the nearby Llandewey community on a daily basis.
"You need to see when school over! The little children have to walk 'cross it even when the water high in the river and nobody nah go do nutten bout it 'til something happen," resident Noel Folkes said, as he demonstrated how careful even adults have to be when crossing the makeshift bridge.
Residents said their problem was made worse two months ago when truck operators removing stones from the river for rehabilitative work on the Yallahs pipeline destroyed the sturdier structure that was in place.
After weeks of waiting on the operators to fulfil a promise to assist in restoring an entrance to the community, Folkes said he was left with no choice but to use pieces of board to nail the poles together so that his young children could stop wading through the river to get to school.
"Mi tired fi go to the police station to report that them bruk down wi bridge and dem nuh do nutten bout it," the despondent father told the Jamaica Observer North East as he took the team to view the makeshift structure.
"Wi try fi do someting fi wiself and wi mek a little stick bridge and nuh gi wiself no trouble and dem lef dem way come mash up the thing and all now, nutten."
Folkes's anger is further fuelled by the fact that a zipline, which the residents made to take them across the river whenever water is high enough to cover the footbridge, was also destroyed by the operators whose heavy equipment broke down the trees to which it was attached.
"Sometimes when the river get bad and wi cyaan cross none at all wi used to wrap up a money in a plastic bag and send it across and somebody go buy someting ah shop and send it back cross," Folkes said, showing the broken cable.
It is this zipline, he said, which helped to save the life of his child's mother who went into labour during the passage of Hurricane Sandy last October.
According to Folkes, his child's mother began experiencing excruciating pain but he was unable to get her to the main road as the river was too powerful to wade through. At 2:00 in the morning, he said he used the cable to cross the river and went to the police station to get help.
"When the police come back with me dem bring all fire brigade, but dem say dem can't get across to her," he recounted.
However, one brave police constable decided to chance it, and accompanied him across on the zipline, to assess the situation.
"Him did train into dem sort ah things so after him look pon har him start calling a helicopter fi come get har fi go hospital," Folkes said.
Hours later, the helicopter, unable to land, hovered close to the ground to allow Folkes's pregnant spouse to get onboard. Following their experience, coupled with the fact that he has the largest family living in Orange Tree, Folkes said he decided to take matters into his own hands to construct the makeshift crossing.
Water, Land and Climate Change Minister Robert Pickersgill, who was in the community last week to tour the rehabilitation works of the Yallahs River, promised the residents that he would look into the matter.
The residents say they are optimistic that the minister will assist them in getting a safe footbridge so those who had abandoned their homes and farms can return to the community.
"When river come down wi crop dem spoil in the field over dere because we cyaan reach it," Robert Anderson said, adding that he would immediately return to reside there if a proper footbridge is installed.
Despite owning acres of land at Orange Tree, Anderson no longer wants to expose his family to the dangers of going back and forth on the structure or having to wade through the river, which is never dry.
Clevious Wilson recalled his near-death experience when he attempted to wade across the flooded river to take a meal for his grandmother who lives in Orange Tree.
"When mi drop in di water wid di food mi decide say mi nah let it go because me granny deh deh hungry and so me haffi just mek up mi mind and say mi ah go tek mi chance," he said.
Fellow resident Roy Parker also recounted a near-death experience in which his wife was nearly washed from his grasp as he helped her to wade through the murky water.
"Mi wife haffi go town everyday and me have to cross har every morning," he said, adding that the residents are desperate to have the problem fixed.
When it rains heavily, children are unable to go to school until the water has receded.
Added to that, the residents say they no longer opt to go to shelters during the passage of a hurricane as they are usually unable to get back home when the shelter closes.
"When wi go shelter wid the women and children and when everybody else leave and dem ready fi the school, Orange Tree people can't leave because we cyaan cross the river yet," one resident argued.