The number of bridges washed away or severely damaged during hurricane Mitch has sparked a national debate on the future design of river crossings in Honduras. Several national newspapers have observed that modern concrete bridges appear to have come off worst, while many older stone arch bridges, built during colonial times, survived with little damage.
Leader writers are now calling for a return to the old designs, and question the integrity with which building standards have been recently applied. They claim that corruption has led to poor construction practices and the use of shoddy materials.
'The older bridges of Tegucigalpa were constructed from rock and despite their age resisted the hurricane. Bridges of concrete and steel do not seem to be this country's solution,' declares Honduras This Week.
Most engineers dismiss these outbursts as uninformed, and say that a return to constructing bridges from rock would be a labour intensive and expensive retrograde step. They also claim that corruption has been overstated, and that the majority of structures have been built correctly to the specifications of the designers.
Honduran institution of civil engineers president Abner Miralda explains: 'Many journalists do not know the truth about corruption, and for me this is not the reason that the bridges fell down.'
He claims the real problem was rather a question of the standards applied, and the assumptions made during the design of the bridges.
The modern structures failed because their decks were higher than those of the old colonial bridges. The older bridges were, by and large, inundated before the river flow became powerful enough to pick up large objects. But as the flood waters continued to rise, they picked up and slammed trees, cars and other large bits of debris into the decks of the more modern bridges, causing them to shear off.
Miralda acknowledges that some increase in safety standardswill now be needed for new bridges, but says it would not have been economic to design bridges to resist a storm as powerful as Mitch. However, he has no doubt that Honduras should stick with modern technology.
'The main thing is that we should have our own design code, as we have relied on the American Society of Civil Engineers code in the past. Design conditions are slightly different here,' he says.
The institution has already completed five chapters of the code but after three years of work lack of money put the project on ice. Miralda now hopes the government will provide funding to allow a full-time team of specialists to finish the work.
'This is a very important moment for the country. It is imperative that we have a complete code by early next year,' he says.