TROY, Trelawny — For schoolchildren in this north-west Manchester, south Trelawny border community the extreme danger from having to cross a river on a makeshift footbridge and zipline is bad enough.
But such is the fear of the river when it overflows that they head for home whenever rain clouds gather, sometimes hours before the scheduled end of the school day.
That's the reality in Troy, Trelawny, and Cowick Park, Manchester, since school reopened on September 5, following the long summer break. The situation flows from the collapse, a year ago, of the 125-year-old Troy Bridge which connected residents from both sides of Hector's River.
Locked school doors last year because of the novel coronavirus pandemic meant the collapsed bridge had little immediate impact on schoolchildren. That changed with the reopening of schools earlier this year.
Some students who would normally walk to school using the bridge now spend up two hours by road and $2,200 in daily transportation costs. Others stay away from school or risk the makeshift options which have been made more dangerous by heavy afternoon rains in recent weeks which have repeatedly left the river in spate.
Acting principal at Troy Primary School Keresha McIntosh related a tale of woe when the Jamaica Observer visited last Wednesday. She explained that school attendance has dropped significantly because of the distance and expense in travelling by alternative routes since the collapse of the Troy bridge.
Furthermore, for those bold enough to risk crossing the river on the makeshift footbridge, created from a fallen tree, and a zipline made from a rope and bucket, class time is swiftly cut if rain threatens.
"It has been really bad, especially for the students who live across the bridge. They have not been able to come to school. Some students are absent for three days for the week and when they do come they have to leave early. So if the rain sets up they have to leave, whether it is nine o'clock in the morning or one o'clock in the afternoon, they have to leave," McIntosh told the Sunday Observer.
She added that some students had transferred to other schools in Balaclava.
When contacted for an update on the Government's pace of works to replace the collapsed infrastructure, minister with responsibility for works Everald Warmington appeared to be annoyed by the Sunday Observer's interest.
"Tell me something: Is that the only bridge in Jamaica that needs replacement or repair? … I don't need to give you nuh update at all! I'm asking if that is the only bridge in Jamaica that needs replacement or repair? That is not the only one!" he said before abruptly ending the phone call.
However, Member of Parliament (MP) for Trelawny Southern Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert said Warmington "confirmed" that a design has been completed for a new bridge.
"... I have received copies of the design for the new bridge, which has been completed and they are now doing a costing of the bridge. I want to indicate that a Bailey bridge is not an option for the area that's there [because it is] far too small," said the Government MP.
Dalrymple-Philibert did not give a specific timeline but said the Government is moving swiftly to replace the bridge.
"The Government has already had the designs drawn and they are now doing a costing so they are moving as speedily ahead as possible," she said.
Opposition spokesman on transport and works Mikael Phillips told the Sunday Observer two weeks ago that the Troy bridge is among some 30 bridges down across the island.
"Let us think about what we are experiencing in Troy [and also] about the other 29 communities that are affected by bridges that have collapsed and the resources that have not been put in place to replace those bridges," he had said.
Acting principal at Troy High Alliah Chambers-Green said the school has lost staff and students who have transferred to other schools to avoid the expensive near 15-mile alternative commute.
"The downed bridge would have significantly impacted our students as well as our staff members. Since then our students have had to traverse the makeshift slabs across the water and this, of course, puts them in direct risk of harm. As a result their access to education has been threatened. So in the seasons where we have had heavy rainfall their ability to come to school would have been compromised," she explained.
"… In terms of our staff, we have lost two experienced teachers from our human resources and this would have been due, in particular, to the strain of travel across the parishes to come to school," she added.
Chambers-Green pointed out that before the bridge collapsed it would take about 30 minutes to travel to Troy from communities close to the Manchester-St Elizabeth border near Balaclava.
"With the bridge down, [teachers] who are from Santa Cruz would be travelling for an hour and 45 minutes via the shortest route and those from Balaclava would now [be taking] about an hour and 20 minutes to come to work," she said.
"The… psychological, physical, and financial strain would have caused persons to opt to work elsewhere," she added.
Chambers-Green said her school is now awaiting information from the Ministry of Education to assist students and staff affected by the collapsed bridge.
"…. As an institution we are seeing how best we are able to ensure our students are engaged and that they are accessing education safely… There are some things that we are considering. We are in discussions with the Ministry of Education… to provide support for these students," she said.
"We are in the process of trying to procure a school bus as one of the things that we would want to do to assist our children to get to school. We currently have some money available, but we are seeking collaboration from corporate Jamaica…" she added.
Principal at Clarence Brimm Early Childhood Institution — located in Troy — Pauline Brown is calling for a temporary footbridge to be erected.
"… It is the prayer of my heart that they will get a bridge across there to help — whether it be a footbridge or construct a new bridge," she said.
She added that the collapsed bridge has affected economic activity in the area.
"Parents have it hard because a lot of them work across the bridge and it is their means of livelihood to send their children to school. Because of that they have a lot of problems to go around [alternative route]," she said.
"The children who are from there [north-west Manchester], they cannot come to school because they have to walk through the river with them, and even since school started I haven't had any children from there because the water that is coming down there is heavy and they cannot walk across with the children, so it is a great loss for us here at the school and in the community," she added.
"A lot of them have to be going to other schools… [which is] additional stress on the parents to find money to send them. A lot of them live close by the bridge here, where they could have just come down to the school," said Brown.
Health-care workers at the neighbouring Troy Health Centre are concerned about the well-being of patients, especially the elderly and toddlers, some of whom have not been able to access the facility since the bridge collapsed on August 18, 2021.
"We have a lot of diabetic and hypertensive people who used to come here on second Fridays and fourth Wednesdays, especially on second Fridays when the pharmacist is here. They get their medication right here. Since the bridge collapse, we keep the prescription and collect the medication, but we only can do that for four months. The doctor has to see the patients within four months," a health-care worker who opted not to be named told the Sunday Observer.
"Last week when I heard that one of them [elderly patient] died, trust mi, I feel it. The babies have to go to Balaclava to get immunisation. We want the bridge," added the health-care worker.
Troy resident Yvette Richards said the collapsed bridge has affected her commute to St Elizabeth to visit her relatives.
"… Mi haffi pay fare go way round Mandeville, it cost me $3,000 odd, go and come," she said.
"Even the likkle pickney dem… if dem do cross the bridge, dem a slide down inna the bridge fi go hurt dem self," she added.
Winston Taylor, who lives in Wilson Run — a Trelawny community four miles away from Troy — said he has not been able to visit his mother, who lives in Cowick Park, as often as he normally would.
"I have a car and I said I would drive it to the bridge and then stop and walk across, but when I go out there now the water come down and I have to turn back with food and stuff that I had to give to my mom," he told the Sunday Observer.
He added that on one occasion he was successful in crossing the river, but his visit to his mother was cut short due to inclement weather.
"One day I try again, and when I was there, my car park [at Troy] and I was going to Christiana, I had to run, because of the rain, to reach back to the car before the river come down," he said.
Cowick Park resident and farmer David Lewis said he had to close his hardware and his farm have been badly affected since his crops are on the other side of the river from where he lives.
"It a gimme a big fight. Mi have a likkle hardware and it lock down fi good. Mi farm across here [Cowick Park] still a gi mi a fight because mi have to carry up to 6,000 yam sticks and mi haffi throw everything across [the river]," he said.
"When mi [walk] cross now mi use mi pickup and carry it up to the farm. When mi finish now mi drive around and carry back the van round pon the next part. It a gi wi a fight, a nuh nutten pretty," he added.
He is among those calling for a temporary footbridge.
"Mi woulda can come through likkle bit lighter [with the footbridge] because when the river come down mi haffi a climb inna the crate and that nuh feel good. You can go inna it and the cord can buss, anything can happen; a life that," he said.
"A whole heap a chance wi a tek wid the river right now, and a September now, so yuh know seh a rainy season… Mi woulda appreciate the walk-foot [bridge] 'til better come," he added.
Yam farmer Baslyn Swaby has been feeling the effects of using the alternative route in his pocket.
"It rough… Wi haffi go waay round the road. It costs too much — more gas, more energy, everything," he said.
Cowick Park resident Delvin Webby has a scar on his side to show after he rescued his 14-year-old son Damar from drowning in the river in June.
"A whole heap a people can lose dem life down deh so. Right now it [section of bridge] can tear down at any time pon people and kill dem, enuh," he said.
He is calling on the Government to swiftly replace the collapsed bridge.
"All now dem nuh come tell wi nutten, enuh… When rain fall nobody cyaan walk deh so, enuh. A inna the box people haffi go, like a yam or luggage yuh a pack up. People a run risk wid dem life fi go a dem yard," he said.
"The embarrassing thing and the bag a remarks nuh really go nuh weh, enuh. The ting [bridge] need fi done right now. We want action!" he shouted.
"Dem nuh want nuh glass fi see seh assistance need right now. A emergency this, enuh. If dem a go wait till sumady dead tomorrow dem run come do sinting, it nuh mek nuh sense…" added Webby.
He said the Government has not been responding to the plight of residents to even construct a footbridge.
"Then if dem come put that in how long now, no one wouldn't have nutten a complain about… Dem nuh come do nutten, not even piece a rope or a stick. A people haffi do it fi themselves," he said.
"A major road this. This yah road shouldn't be down fi so long. This yah road carry yuh right roun' Jamaica. Any weh yuh waan go, enuh, and a whole heap a people come yah so and haffi ask people question weh dem fi go," he added.
Troy resident Royan Nelson is concerned about the safety of students.
"It rough pon dem.. nuff time dem haffi tek off all dem shoes to how down deh mud up and dem haffi come up and wash off dem foot," he said.
Another resident, Raymond Powell, believes the Government is not proactive.
"Is like the Government a wait pon some judgement fi gwaan before dem do suppen. It look like seh dem love excitement. When dem hear seh nine or 10, 11 people dead and the big crowd down yah now, because dem love prove, enuh, so [a] when some people dead [they will act]," he said.
"It very dangerous. Right now it nuh name Cowick Park Bridge again, it name death valley… Even when you stand up pon the bridge a romp yuh a romp wid yuh life. [Putting] people inna the crate [and] walking inna the water, a romp wid dem life because the wall deh can drop down anytime," he added.
He said makeshift footbridges, built by residents, are washed away once the river goes into spate.
"Every day dem man yah carry wood like seh a lumber yard dem a go sell lumber fi put cross the [river] fi school pickney come cross. Sometime mi seh, 'A one-day bridge that, enuh,' because it only put up till the rain fall, enuh," he said.