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Military muddle After Hurricane Mitch an American military task force arrived in Honduras in a blaze of publicity, promising to hit the ground running. But it has been slow to repair roads and bridges

The tyres of my Chevrolet scrunch to a halt outside Soto Cano airbase some 80km north of the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa. It is 6.50am, I am 10 minutes early, and the jumpy young Honduran soldiers guarding the gates are in no mood to let me in. 'You must have a pass,' they bark. 'Pull up over there.'

After five minutes of wrangling, they let me through the barrier to call the chief of security. He assures them I am not a terrorist or a remnant of the Contra army which operated from the base, and looking suitably officious they wave me through with their guns.

It is the culmination of a week of telephone calls. I have come to see the joint American task force which landed in Honduras in a blaze of publicity following Hurricane Mitch. The promise that they would hit the ground running to install Bailey bridges and repair roads has so far failed to materialise, and I am trying to find out why.

My hosts for the day are a Marine 2nd Lieutenant Edward Cebellos (number one haircut, serious scowl), Lieutenant Shane O'Donnell from the Army's 20 Engineering Brigade, and voice of experience Chief Thomas Stine of the Navy's Construction Battalion Seven, or 'Sea Bees'.

'This is the first time that we've worked as a total construction service linking up the Navy, Marines and Army,' Stine informs me.

As we climb aboard two Highly Mobile Multi-Wheeled Vehicles, known as 'hummers', I am told our mission for the day will be to survey two landslides on the main north-south route - an important link for aid supplies and agricultural produce. After final checks on men and equipment, our driver fires up the hummer's huge engine and we roar away.

On our journey we pass mist-shrouded mountains covered in cloud forest. The Americans seem to get a hero's welcome at every village - young children run waving along the side of the road and teenage girls flash toothy smiles.

After two hours we reach the end of the road, and the group of 10 soldiers and sailors leaps off the back of the first hummer, stretching muscles stiffened by the wind. Before us a 100m length of the road has slipped away down the hillside, leaving a gaping hole.

We squelch around the chasm to get a better look, and see that water is still pouring from the saturated earth. A family on the other side huddles in a house now perilously close to the edge.

Soldiers from the Engineering Brigade set to work surveying the area with a electronic total station and two targets. They move quickly, sweeping the whole area with spot heights, and after 45 minutes the computer has enough data to churn out a profile of the slide.

'We've calculated that we'll need around 12,500m3 of fill for the repair,' says O'Donnell.

'Yep, looks like we'll have to put gabion cages all the way up the banks and some drains down there in the bottom,' adds Stine.

We are now, however, stuck. We need to get around the landslide to survey the other one further down the road, but even the hummers cannot cope with this. Fortunately a local man comes to our rescue, with a Hyundai excavator. He clears a way through the rock and earth to create a rough track.

The hummers cross unladen, one at a time. They slip and slide, lurching close to the edge, but both make it across to cheers from the rest of the team. We climb back aboard and head down the road.

After about a kilometre we see a massive reddy-brown scar in the hill to the left. A textbook landslide has left 400m of the road buried beneath thousands of tonnes of earth and rock.

Surprisingly we are not the first to reach the site - someone has already started to clear a way through. But the Americans start surveying anyway.

Stine takes a Private and heads off up the hill to take a look at the lip of the slide, 150m up, but soon returns cursing. 'There's a crack a couple of metres from the edge which gets bigger as you go on up. The whole thing's still unstable,' he warns.

As Stine and O'Donnell debate the merits of carrying out a controlled blast to bring the loose earth down, a gang from a local contractor arrives. The manager plods over with two men - one carrying a metre long machete. For a moment he eyeballs Stine, neither able to communicate.

O'Donnell fetches one of the privates who can speak Spanish. He explains that we are just here to survey, and will not take his work from him. The manager smiles a mouthful of gold teeth, and machete man plods back down the hill to start work.

With a bulldozer and dumper truck they level the surface of the road and then spread a thin layer of rock over a geotextile base. Considering what they have to work with it is a pretty good job - if only a temporary measure.

'I don't think we can help here,' says Stine. 'We don't want to tread on anybody's toes.'

'I think the correct term is that we cannot interfere with the local economy,' adds the serious Cebellos.

We go down the hill and watch. With the help of the interpreter, everyone is soon friends, and a crowd of locals gathers. They tell us 34 people died in the landslides on this short stretch of road. One is still missing.

We prepare to move out. The soldiers give the children sweets from their ration packs, and are given pineapples in return as

souvenirs. They take photo- graphs for their friends and families back home.

In the gathering gloom on the way back to Soto Cano, I ask Cebellos how long the Marines expect to be in Honduras. He says they are reckoning at least January and have been told 'to come home with the bridges or don't come home at all'.

The thought seems to cheer him enough to break into a rendition of the Marines Hymn, bolstered by one of his Corporals. 'It's more like home (California) here than at the Marine base back in North Carolina,' he explains.

As we get out of the hummers the soldiers all seem happy with their day's work, and I can't help but think that they see it as a bit of a game.

The thought makes me angry, and as I drive back to Tegucigalpa I consider what a waste the day has been. Through poor co-ordination we have ended up doing unnecessary work and had to spend time patching up relations with the locals. No wonder the Americans are yet to start erecting Bailey bridges.

Meanwhile, through the crackling static of the radio, a reporter reminds me that other parts of the country are still cut off by road, and remain urgently in need of medical and food supplies.

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