Sisyphus of St. Thomas

August 13, 2008

So, the newest iteration of the Yallahs bridge has been completed six weeks ahead of time. That’s the first indication that some shortcut happened somewhere and is not a good sign. I know my people.

Of course, the bridge, like everything else here, is already politicized. JLP will want to take credit for building it and finishing ahead of schedule to score points with the masses. But once something goes wrong, PNP will get the blame, some of it rightly attributed, for their share of the sheggery that went down in the awarding of public contracts.

The company contracted to do the work is a Danish group, Pihl and Sons. Their specialty is in marine and waterfront construction. They have built bridges, but, from what I see, the quality of what they have done elsewhere is not reflected in what has been produced here in Jamaica. I have a sneaking suspicion that they were only contracted to build the bridge structure, not to deal with the other environmental and structural issues related to maintaining the bridge. So, is this bridge going to be yet another stick house built in quicksand?

Apparently, Mike Henry (Minister of Transport and Works) is also appropriately concerned that the bridge’s span across the ravine that runs from the foothills of the Blue Mountains towards the coast is insufficient. And I bet he is not the only one who is suspicious. But, according to the Observer, “[h]e was also assured by project manager at the National Works Agency, Linval Ramdial, that with proper river training, water should not be able to wash out the structure. This river training, Henry later said, was ongoing work which should continue into the next couple of months.”

Hmm. “With proper river training”; “ongoing work should continue.” Do we see where this is headed?

Wasn’t that work supposed to be integrated into the design and construction of the bridge? Have you ever seen this area before and during construction? If you have, then you will recognize that that expansive ravine is NOT simply a river; it is an organic waterway. It widens and deepens based on the force of the water pouring down out of those hills. We have seen the results of such movement recently.

And yet, to date and even with the new bridge being heralded, there is no engineering intervention in place to manage that waterway.

I see a picture of the bridge. In none of the media commentary has anyone – engineers, politicians, geographers, nobody – bothered to say HOW this bridge design will be different in order to accommodate the stressful conditions it will be subjected to – not just water but the ongoing parade of trucks! As usual, the tittilation has been all about building the bridge, drooling over the hefty pieces of steel, as if we watching pornography or is some ki’n a neva-see-come-see.

Not a word about quality.

Not a word about sustainability and how/whether bridge use will be amended to prolong its lifetime.

Not a word about why this project has been so difficult to accomplish properly.

Not one word.

We are supposed to just sit down and watch taxpayers’ money being washed out to sea, and then wait for when it will be time again to roll that rock right back to the top of the hill.

I have been fortunate to have studied about and driven across many bridges – small and large. I know a dud when I see it. And when I look at the picture, what I see here is a puny bridge that appears to be a sitting duck, ready to be washed away. Its design is not much different than what has been there before and shared a common fate, several times.

Despite what the politicians say, the problem with Yallahs fording does not date back to 2002; it dates back to the 1970s. St. Thomas people know this problem and know that the lack of adequate resolution is related to the quarrying that is going on right there at the foot of the river. A couple decades later, the bridge issue still an albatross around the necks of the people of St. Thomas. Don’t think it has been resolved with this new structure that has been erected. How much you want to bet that this bridge don’t last five years?

But, I, like you, will wait and see. I will drive across it in weeks to come when I go to a balmyard for a ritual cleansing in time for the school year to begin. I wish the entire nation could take a bath. We sure need it.


11 Responses to “Sisyphus of St. Thomas”

  1. Excellent,albeit depressing commentary. Makes you wonder when will we ever learn, and when will we as a people decide to start valuing ourselves enough to stand up for our “rights”, so to speak, and demand better from those who are supposed to serve us…I know, another long and complicated issue.


    That the entire nation could do with an ablution is unquestionable.Hopefully,we do have a national balmyard large enough to address such a ritual exercise. Interestingly, it could be addressed at the the National Arena and Stadium Complex.Longbench,your assessment and evaluation of this structure,ostensibly,suggests and indicates that gargantuan problems of a Sisyphean nature looms ahead for the people and parish of St.Thomas.Apparently,the question of quality and sustainability have not been factored, or, incorporated in the construction and development of this inconsequential and trifling lemon of a bridge, which in all likelihood and probability could, or, will experience a relatively short or abbreviated life in terms of a wash out when the ferocious wrath of nature/river is in spate and unleashed, making so called proper, or, appropriate river training, laughable,preposterous,farcical and comical.Bwoy, mi really feel sorry fi di people of St. Thomas in terms of this paltry and meager attempt to resolve a problem of this magnitude. Apparently,they are condemned to rolling this huge boulder up a hill forever.By the way enjoy your ablution.Incidentally,years back, mi did know a couple obeah man in dat area,but mi lose touch wid dem. Nuff respect!!

  3. Mad Bull Says:

    But…. where is the bridge? I didn’t see any bridge in your pictures… still, I see Mike Henry walking across something looking like a bridge in a picture on one of your links, so I suppose it is in fact there. I will have to set up a reminder to check on the bridge in five years… 😉

  4. longbench Says:

    YardEdge – its not that complicated you know. If the govt agency is doing something that is going to affect my quality of life, and there’s a longstanding problem, then I have the right to ask some questions and demand satisfactory answers. This is what it means to live in a democratic society. That’s why the mobilization in Portmore around the tollway has been so important in recent months; more communities need to take a leaf out of their playbook and learn how to advocate for themselves. Honestly, the majority of us still act like we live in a monarchy where the king can make decrees and dispatch his soldiers as he sees fit; and we sit here and believe that he always has our best interests at heart. Even the foot-soldiers of this monarchy – Mike Henry et al. – who really do mean well sometimes, also don’t realize how they can be of better service by creating open channels of communication with the communities they are serving, so people can ask their questions and feel like their concerns are being heard. Some of this might have happened in the past year; however, I don’t know about any.

  5. longbench Says:

    MB – Yes, Mike was standing on said bridge. But I figured your hawk-eyes would catch the pic in the newspaper anyway. Do visit St. Thomas next time you’re here, and even walk over the bridge. If you reach as far as Morant Bay, buy some powerbread and cheese!

    Esteban – yes, the project is gargantuan in the sense that there is a history that is weighing down on the bridge; that, plus all that water. Believe you me, I hold my breath every time I have to drive through that fording. The image is always the same: my car is halfway across, I hear the sound of thunder, turn my head to the left, only to see a mountain of water bearing down on me. My skepticism about the quality issue re-emerges when I see no evidence that the technical folks involved in this project really get the complexity of the problem. The issue of the bridge has been laid at the feet of folks in St. Thomas, but it is really a collective problem. We don’t have a working drainage system, our roads fall apart with each rainfall. All part of the same system. We are surrounded by water, but we still don’t understand its awesome power, or how to contain and harness it. Rock rolls down…

  6. Hi Long Bench,

    As always, a most insightful read – obeah and all! And, I would add, a very legitimate religion, at that!

    That being said, as I drive over that “bridge” fairly often I too share your concerns. I am, unfortunately, constrained by my own Government obligations and, therefore, am unable to speak too deeply on this matter, as you might understand.

    What is certain, though, is the fact that there is a skewed notion of development that we ascribe to in Jamaica, one that does not include the considerations of experts in a very real way. The only “consultants” in such matters, it appears, are politicians and their technocrats. Whether there is real regard for the people at “Ground Zero” or whether their issues must also be considered in the design and implementation, as well as the maintenance of the bridge, apparently, does not concern them! Sad!

    …Hopefully, the bath works! LOL!

  7. …Oopps! My address should have read –, or…Forgive the self promotion, Long! LOL!

  8. longbench Says:

    Raw – so I guess we can’t take advantage of you being a civil servant to ask for a little “insight” into the morass called govament? I’m disappointed. Self-promotion is fine with me, especially if there is something worthwhile to be gained. Now, if only I could follow my own advice…

  9. shorty poopstick Says:

    I followed the trail from your “writing in the sand” story and was glad I did. I don’t know this bridge, but your disapproval makes me feel I do. Nice work.


    Raw politics is totally correct.Often times development does not incorporate the locals in sundry communities.Admittedly,many of these projects are not people centered.Locals that/who are extremely knowledgeable about and regarding the issues that/which affects their daily lives and existence,as a consequence of their historical and social experiences,in many instances their perspectives,knowledge,and unique understanding of the problems are not utilized,factored and incorporated in the projects or programme that/which are supposedly designed or constructed to benefit them.Interestingly,such locals are often eschewed contemptuously,while technocrats — both local and foreign — and politicians determine what is suitable,needed and required for the locals.Again,it is all part and parcel of the political economy of foreign aid.


    Well,Gusty Gustav will be a test for the Sisyphus of St.Thomas.

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