MAURERTOWN — Recent rainfall has caused flooding again over the Black Bear bridge, leaving several families without a crossing over the swift-moving Shenandoah River.
Fiona Sonsmith and her family are trapped by the floodwaters.
“We get flooded about five to six times a year. We plan for it,” Sonsmith said.
Bear Paw Road serves as the only route in and out of the Black Bear Crossing community. The single lane, low-water bridge, however, often floods when the Shenandoah River swells, trapping residents who live on the east side of the bank sometimes for days. Both Bear Paw Road and the bridge are privately owned and maintenance is the responsibility of the homeowners.
The first time the Sonsmith family experienced the isolation that occurs when the Shenandoah River floods was about eight years ago.
“We were trapped for a week,” she said. “It was scary.”
Sonsmith has four children, and she said she is concerned about what would happen if there was an emergency.
“We all pay taxes. We get cut off from work, school, emergency services,” she said. “VDOT (Virginia Department of Transportation) should take the bridge over.”
On Tuesday, contractor Sean Rhinehart stood with Sonsmith looking over the swollen, raging river from the road leading to the bridge. The independent contractor with Handy Men 4 U said he and some other workers had been repairing water damage at a cabin on the mountain. They had driven there from Edinburg on Monday, bringing with them tools, materials, food and blankets as they expected to remain in the area.
“We crossed over the bridge, everything was fine,” Rhinehart said.
He did not know the bridge was flooded until he drove back down the mountain to pick up some more material. He stopped his white pickup truck near the river where the bridge was impassable.
“I have seen better days,” he said.
One local resident who has seen medical emergencies occur there is Diane Krause, who lives on the west side of the bank next to the bridge. She and her husband keep an eye on what is happening with the river and the bridge, often texting people who live on the opposite side.
During a flood last year, the couple were out on their deck when a young woman fell into the cold river water as she tried to stop her dog from entering it.
“The minute she went in, she pulled off her boots, her coat, and turned onto her back.,” Krause said.
Krause said she and her husband ran to the river, screaming that they were coming and asking her to tell them where she was. They found that she had kicked her way to the side where the Krauses were and had grabbed a tree branch. Krause said her husband grabbed a branch and was able to pull the woman to shore. They took her home to warm her up.
Her hair, Krause said, was already frozen to her head.
Krause said she believes that rescue crews would not have been able to get to the woman if she had ended up on the east side of the bank. When crews did arrive they took the woman to the hospital.
Todd A. Steiner, chairman of the Black Bear Crossing Committee, said Tuesday that he can’t get to his home. Steiner and his family are staying with other family members in Stephens City.
There are 49 homes, with about 120 people living in them, in the community. When the bridge is flooded, those who did not leave beforehand to stay somewhere else are trapped.
Steiner estimated on Tuesday about 10 families are stranded in their homes today.
He said he is hoping the floodwaters will recede by this evening.
The committee would like the state to take over the bridge to bring it up to standards, an estimated $4.5-5 million project. The project would involve building a two-lane bridge and raising it to prevent flooding and to allow debris to pass under it.
One step that could make it easier for the committee to get the road into the state system is creating a sanitation district.
“Yes, we have had a meeting with Supervisor (Karl) Roulston and Supervisor (Dennis) Morris and are exploring the creation of a sanitary district,” Steiner said. “However, the cost sharing is the sticking point. A sanitary district requires a majority vote of all property owners and if you are talking about an extra $1,000 to $2,000 per lot per year over 30 years, then it becomes very expensive for the residents” Steiner said.
He argues the residents cannot afford it and should not have to bear the $4.5-5 million cost to bring the bridge up to standard.
“Government pays for a lot of services for the people. It seems like they have a duty to come to the aid of residents,” Steiner said.
The Virginia Department of Transportation cannot pay for repairs or replacement of a bridge not in its system.
VDOT spokesperson Ken Slack said the bridge would need to be brought up to state standards before it could be accepted, exactly as Steiner predicted.
Slack said one option would be to apply for a revenue sharing program in which Shenandoah County and the state would share costs of the project.
The county could be responsible for $2-3 million.
Steiner said the Board of Supervisors in the past has rejected their pleas for help, arguing it is a private bridge and the responsibility of the residents who live there.
Supervisors Karl Roulston, Dennis Morris and Richard Walker did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Supervisor Dick Neese said residents knew it was a private bridge when they purchased their homes. When pressed if he would even consider participating in a revenue sharing program, he said he would entertain the idea.
“I would have to look at it. It may take money from other funding – that might be important. We could entertain the idea but I don’t have hope of it,” Neese said.
Supervisor Steve Baker said he understands the development that has occurred there, and he understands the residents’ concerns.
“When you are talking that amount of money, that is huge. How you prioritize county funding is tough,” Baker said.
Supervisor Conrad Helsley said the discussion for many years has been about the cost.
“With all the different budget pressures, it is going to be very difficult doing that on a road we don’t own – it’s a tough sale,” Helsley said.