(June 2, 2016) As a bridge designer, I have always enjoyed the fact that bridges connect parts of a community, improve travel and make life better for everyone. For a Bridges to Prosperity project this spring, I actually got to build a bridge—not just design it—for the first time. As satisfying as it was to build that bridge, I found the relationships I built in the process even more rewarding.
In case you haven’t heard of Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) here is a quick introduction. In March 2001, B2P founder Ken Frantz saw a photo in National Geographic Magazine that spurred the idea for the organization. More than 200 bridges later, B2P continues to provide access to healthcare and education, for example, by teaching people how to build footbridges over impassable rivers in partnership with organizations and professionals.
In April, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Lurá, Panamá as part of a unique B2P project. This was the first time when a team of public, private and industry association volunteers was brought together to work on a single project. The 12-member team was organized by the National Steel Bridge Alliance (NSBA), and it was comprised of industry representatives from two steel fabricators, three engineering consultants and employees from California, Arizona Department of Transportation, Colorado DOT and Utah DOT.
Lurá is a small village of about 500 people near the center of the country. It’s surrounded by a jungle, and it doesn’t have electricity or cell phone service. It does have a school, a church, one solar-powered pay phone and a medical center that is occasionally visited by a nurse or doctor. About 200 children attend school, with some walking up to an hour-and-a-half each way. Most of the students have to cross the river that runs through the center of the village to get to school. In the dry season the river can be crossed by wading, but in the wet season it’s unsafe to enter the water. An unstable wood bridge used to be the only way to cross the river.
The residents of Lurá were excited and well-organized for this project, and many came to welcome us when we arrived. Before we got there, two full-time Panamanian B2P employees led the community in constructing the bridge abutments and deadman anchors. This was completed by hand excavation, scavenging for rocks, building concrete forms by hand and hand-mixing many cubic yards of concrete.
Each morning, a work group of eight to 10 men met us at the bridge site to help with the bridge construction—some walking 45 minutes from their homes to be there. Spending the better part of two weeks building a bridge superstructure by hand using only one generator and a few battery-operated hand tools brought the team together quickly. Most tasks required a team effort, from moving steel columns to lifting and installing the main cables. Although the locals did not speak English, we soon learned to appreciate each other and we enjoyed working alongside one another. More than once we were “saved” by the locals when they showed us the “Lurá way,” which are construction methods that don’t use electricity or hydraulic equipment.
Thanks to our work as a team, the bridge came together in just over a week.
Panamá was beautiful. The opportunity to get your hands dirty building (not just designing) a bridge was memorable and the food was delicious, but getting to know the locals and the other team members was simply wonderful. The personal relationships formed by sharing a two-week experience of planning, eating, sleeping, laughing and working alongside clients and industry partners was invaluable. It cannot be replicated through any typical business interaction.
Josh Sletten of UDOT said it best: “I have heard expressed from nearly every individual involved on this project that the experience was incredible and exceeded our expectations in nearly every aspect! I too am grateful. I'm grateful to help a community in need, I'm grateful to reconnect with the basic principles of our profession, I'm grateful I could unplug for a little while ... but mostly, I'm grateful I got to meet and get to know each one of you. I'm grateful to make 13 great new friends, and I very much look forward to the next time our paths meet.” In fact, the B2P team has planned a reunion this summer.
I asked Maria Christiana, the village matriarch, what she thought of the finished product. She replied, “It is better than we ever imagined it could be.” I feel the same way.
If you’d like to see more pictures from our Lurá, Panamá Bridges to Prosperity project, check out our Storify page. You can also see other B2P projects in progress around the world on B2P’s Instagram account.