The sizable sinkhole that formed on the General Canas highway has dominated news headlines and caused much consternation for many people in Costa Rica. The affected highway is the most heavily transited in Costa Rica as it connects the populous cities of San Jose and Alajuela, not to mention the busy Juan Santamaria International Airport, travelers heading to the beaches in the Central Pacific and Guanacaste, etc. Social media outlets are filled with content related to the sinkhole, and national newspaper La Nacion has dedicated an entire multimedia section to the unfortunate event.
As expected, Ticos have resorted to irony and satire to comment on the situation, and some very sharp criticism has been directed at the Ministry of Transport and Public Works (MOPT in Spanish).
Critics claim that the sinkhole is just a super-sized version of the extensive network of potholes that make up the road in Costa Rica, an occurrence that is a staple of life in a Third World country where highway maintenance is routinely ignored. Such criticism ignores the fact that urban sinkholes that swallow vehicles and buildings are par for the course in Florida, where in Marion County 53 new sinkholes opened up after the passage of a tropical storm. In a Brooklyn neighborhood, a 60-foot sinkhole forced the evacuation of eleven families yesterday -according to NBC New York. The Bexhill-on-Sea Observer in South England recently reported a sinkhole in a car park (parking lot) that left automobiles stranded.
Traffic is flowing at a painfully slow pace on the General Canas as crews work around the clock to repair the damage, and conditions are expected to greatly improve this weekend thanks to the installation of two Bailey bridges. Costa Rica is no stranger to these metallic truss bridges; in fact, several Baileys serve communities around our country. These structures are supposed to be band-aid solutions to civil engineering challenges, but in Costa Rica they are part of the landscape.
A Lifesaving Wartime Invention
Bailey bridges are testaments to the amazing British ingenuity during World War II. They were invented by Sir Donald Bailey for the British War Office in the early 1940s. These prefab metallic bridges are specially designed for wartime service, and in fact many Bailey bridges during WWII were installed by combat engineers while taking enemy fire. Such was the case during a battle in Sicily, where Royal Canadian Engineers erected a Bailey bridge as artillery rounds rained all around them.
Thousands of Bailey bridges were installed during WWII, and they saved the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians by providing safe crossings. The Pegasus Bridge memorial in France features a section of a Bailey Bridge to honor the victory of Allied forces during one of the earliest battles of D-Day. Video game players can even recreate this historical event by playing the role of a British soldier from the 6th Airborne Division on the Call of Duty game series (video).
A Tool for Political Ingratiation
In Costa Rica, Bailey bridges have saved the standing of more than one political administration. Whenever a bridge in Costa Rica is damaged by flooding, or otherwise falls off due to poor maintenance, engineers from MOPT rush to the scene followed by public officials looking for a photo opportunity next to a shiny Bailey bridge.
The problem is that Bailey bridges too often become permanent fixtures that serve as reminders of empty promises. During the rainy season in 2010, three fallen bridges in communities around San Carlos and San Ramon could not be replaced by Baileys because the government said there weren’t any. According to journalist Gerardo Quesada of the San Carlos Al Dia newspaper, the MOPT actually gave two Bailey bridges to Autopistas del Sol in late 2010 so that construction of the new toll road to Caldera in the Pacific could continue; even after rural communities were told about the lack of Baileys.