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Bridge backlash

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.

Most engineers dismiss these outbursts as uninformed, and say that a return to constructing bridges from rock would be a retrograde step.

Honduran Colegio de Ingenieros president Abner Miralda says 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 standards will 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.

'The main thing is that we should have our own design code. Conditions are slightly different here,' he says.

The Colegio has completed five chapters of the code but lack of money put the project on ice. Miralda now hopes the government will provide funding to allow a team of specialists to finish.

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