Stranded on South Fork

Over 100 residents in Three Rivers were left stranded following the collapse of the Connelly Bridge on South Fork Road

THREE RIVERSIt has been nearly a week since the latest storms flooded and eroded three large sections back on South Fork Road in Three Rivers leaving my family and approximately 160 other people stranded.

I’m beginning to believe we will be stuck back here for another month if somebody doesn’t start figuring out an effective plan of action.

It started last Thursday, March 9. The rain poured down as I watched the small creek near my home turn into a raging torrent of water. Steadily the water rose up and I wondered if Connelly Bridge (or as we call it Twin Bridges) would go out again. The answer was obvious. It was gonna go out again. I just had no idea how bad it was, but I would soon see it was way worse than I could have imagined.

It’s not like the Three Rivers community is a stranger to facing emergencies. It has faced two other noteworthy events in the last few years. In 2021 the KNP Complex Fire quickly became national news when flames raged in the Sequoia National Park and threatened dozens of the giant ancient conifers that draw millions of visitors to the national park annually. And you only need to go back to 2020 when the SQF Complex Fire forced a month-long evacuation of Three Rivers residents on South Fork Drive and consumed nearly 175,000 acres before fire crews gained 100% containment. During both fires the community had to contend with the lung-busting smoke that hung thick in our air for weeks.

Before we lost our internet and cell service Thursday afternoon, we could see that the Tulare County Emergency website was missing information about the flooding and road closures in Three Rivers. When I called the county office to make them aware, I only managed to reach the office operator. She was, not surprisingly, unaware that the website was malfunctioning. I also informed her that the TC Alert system that sends text and phone call alerts did not mention South Fork Road was flooded and impassable at Cinnamon Creek, in addition to, Connelly Bridge.

Friday, I ran into a neighbor on the road. He played me a video of South Fork at Cinnamon Creek. I stared, shocked – the road was completely gone. I needed to see this for myself.

I stood at the torn edge of the road looking across a 40-foot gap to the other side. Where there once had been the road an angry river now rushed where it pushed through the opening it had made earlier. Standing there I thought to myself, nobody’s getting out here for a while. My next thought was, how long will it take to fix this mess? The only answer I came up with was A VERY LONG TIME.

According to one of our community advocates, Three Rivers has the oldest demographic in Tulare County, and many if not mostly seniors with various medical needs happen to live in South Fork. As an unincorporated area, Three Rivers must rely on Tulare County to come through.

For a day or so, the weather blessed us with a break from the storms and even some sunshine broke through, granting a few of us stranded back here an opportunity to get out of the house and stretch our legs, offer help to each other and share information we’d gathered. I struck up a conversation with a few nearby neighbors that have called Three Rivers home for a number of decades. And I heard the same thing from each of them. They haven’t ever seen it this bad before. Not 30 years ago. Not ever.

Monday afternoon some of the residents set up a rope, pulley, and milk crate basket system across the Cinnamon Creek road closure so small amounts of supplies can be passed across. And a group of young men have taken their ATVs and braved the treacherous fire roads over the back hills into town, winching themselves over gorges in about a 25 mile round trip, to gather supplies and much-needed medicines for us. But even that extraordinary measure is being shutdown by the most recent rains which made even the fire roads impassable.

And although our local deputy has been doing a good job at making himself available via phone; encouraging us to call him with any questions, needs, or to relay information, we are still waiting to hear plans and see concerted efforts beyond the one supply drop, which has been dispersed to those in need. However, there has been a lack of communication during this emergency to our community, and I’ve been sensing a growing frustration at the lack of action.

On Wednesday, I reached out to several of our elected officials such as: Governor Newsom, Congressman McCarthy, State Assemblyman Fong, and State Senator Shannon Grove. And although our Governor’s office staffer seemingly found our conversation “unproductive” as I explained our needs, and I’ve yet to hear back from Congressman McCarthy’s office or Assemblyman Fong’s office, I was grateful for the focus and attention I received from the office of my State Senator Sharron Grove and one of her hardworking staff Ken.

I know that both Governor Newsom and President Biden have declared a state of emergency for California. Now I just hope help is coming because we’re all waiting back here for our county and state officials to leap into action. But from what I’m hearing there is as yet – after an entire week – no central command for this emergency incident as far as I can tell. I feel our leaders are letting us down.

A petition was started to ask Governor Newsom to send the National Guard to our stranded communities. And as far as I know, this publication was the first to report on it, which is how I found out about it. Today the petition had an update, letting us know that one of our own was airlifted for a medical emergency. The clock is ticking.

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