- Written by Kay Martin
06 Jan 2012
THE ECONOMY - (Ed Note: As Panama rushes to complete the widening of the Canal, SoCal faces the loss of revenue and jobs. Here’s Kay Martin’s first person account of how seriously the Panamanians take their canal and how officials can save those jobs and that revenue.)
The island of Taboga is twelve miles off the coast of Panama City and was settled by the Spanish beginning in 1524. During colonial times, it was quite influential and the hotels located there were more luxurious than those in Panama. Today many Tabogans commute to Panama to work and many Panamanians commute to Taboga to play. They use the Calypso Princess and Calypso Queen Ferry boats.
In the morning I looked at my watch while reading La Prensa newspaper on the bus heading to Ft. Amador in the canal- zone. I read the Calypso Queen would leave the Amador Causeway at 7 A.M. to sail through the canal to Colon on the Caribbean side for yearly maintenance. The public was invited and an evening bus would transport them back to Panama.
I looked at my watch again and discovered I had been wrong. I wasn’t heading to Ft. Amador. I was heading to the Amador Causeway to catch the Calypso Queen. You better make sure your hat is secure because you’re coming along for the ride.
Besides being treated to spectacular scenery, impenetrable jungle, flourishing wildlife, and hydro forces that dazzle, you're going to witness one of the greatest engineering feats man has ever accomplished. During the ten-hour trip through the canal you will be treated to its history, technical detail, and color that covers every aspect of the canal.
I once commented to a US Army corporal about the tremendous amount of rain that Panama receives during the season. It comes down in torrents so hard at times that you cannot see more than 50 feet in distance. I will never forget his response ' yeah, that's what makes the canal possible'.
This was outlined in detail during the ferry ride. The Caribbean (Atlantic) and Pacific oceans are at different levels. In addition they are separated by the isthmus of Panama containing the continental divide. Raising the ship over the divide is akin to placing it in a bathtub then filling the tub with water. Lowering the ship is akin to draining the bathtub.
The source of this water is the immense amount of rain and the 20 mile artificial Lake Gatun situated near the continental divide. The lake was created between 1907 and 1913 by building Gatun Dam across the Charges River.
The geography was ideal for the creation of the lake; hills bordering the valley of the Charges open up widely around the area of the lake, but came together to form a gap just 1 1/2 mile wide at the location of the dam. Gatun Lake has an area of 164 square miles and stores 183,000,000,000 cubic feet of water. Each time a ship transits the canal 53,000,000 gallons of water flow from the lake into the oceans.
All paperwork for a ship's transit through the canal has to be submitted 36 hours in advance. The ships then queue at both the Caribbean and Pacific entrances. Any hour of the day and night at least 30 ships can be seen queued and at night they look like a string of pearls.
Panamanians eat, drink, and sleep the canal. Half the students at the university carry engineering books under their arms and this is the only place in the world I have seen hydro engineering. Canal personnel can look at a ship and accurately estimate its displacement and other technical specifications. These are checked at times by the canal teams against the paperwork. Panamanian pilots take control of the vessels during their transit. The chief pilot instructs the ship's captain as to the speed and direction of the vessel. Each ship is assigned as many as 5 color coded flags for use during transit. These assign right of passage and other precedence during transit.
The Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks are on the Pacific side of the continental divide and Gatun is on the Caribbean side. As the vessel approaches the first set of locks another launch boat delivers Panamanian line handlers to the ship. These lines are connected to 12 locomotives referred to as mules. The use of the locomotives instead of actual mules is the only deviation from the precise and brilliant design of the French. Each lock transit will last about 45 minutes.
Events leading up the canal building were enveloped in a 'miasmic mist' of failure following the French effort. Panama seemed to spell defeat since the U.S. Canal Commission favored Nicaragua as a clean slate for an all-American project.
President McKinley was assassinated and President Roosevelt was not encumbered about the 'dream' of a canal through the Isthmus. He was practical and wanted something that was vital and indispensable to US destiny as a global power with supremacy over both its costal oceans. After years of political posturing, military episodes, and Panama's independence from Colombia the building of the canal began in 1904.
Among the many champions were Dr. William Gorgas and Dr. Walter Reed. Through their work and research they identified the mosquito as the reason for the French failure. This ensured canal completion success. One of the outstanding engineers was Col. George Goethals. All these outstanding men had the help of 44,000 others who worked around the clock.
The engineering feats achieved are absolutely stunning. One example is the joining of a chain of Pacific islands (Florence, Perico, Naos, and Culebra) to create a three-mile breakwater across tidal flats to prevent silt from clogging the canal entrance.
Not much can be said about attempts to breach security of the canal because not much has ever been said. Nevertheless this effort is on-going 24 hours a day since the canal opening in 1914. The best security in the world exists and breach attempts have even included the re-introduction of the mosquito vector.
The refreshment bar on the Calypso was open throughout the crossing and I wondered whether placing a small umbrella in a Mai Tai originated during transit of the canal. Who wants to get fresh rain water in their fresh Mai Tai?
I will never know what I had missed at Ft. Amador but I will never forget how I spent my day.
Today the canal is being enlarged to accommodate the larger ships that are now forced to use Los Angeles ports. Work is on-going around the clock. This is the reality of the Panama challenge that the Los Angeles port officials face with Panama.
In order to counteract this local officials should investigate building an energy efficient fast freight rail from the port to a distribution center in the desert that connects to highways and railroads that criss-cross the nation. This alleviates problems caused by traffic, congestion, and pollution generated through current use of the port in Los Angeles, efficiently moves the freight canisters to the distribution center in the desert, then the center connects to railroads and highways for quick forwarding to our nation. This then allows the continued off-loading and use of the ports by the large ships in an efficient manner that economically competes with the enlarged canal.
The resources required to develop such a project are right here in Southern California. The project resources exist at the Northrops, the Lockheeds, and the Boeings. They possess the proven capabilities in engineering, mathematics, vision, and a track-record. They have already developed the metro systems of Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. They also put man on the moon.
The reality local officials face is the fact that the Panamanians will not miss the projected operational date of the enlarged canal.
The feared knee-jerk reaction to this challenge is that the officials might do something like replicating the building of the Green Line Metro that routes 10 passengers a year to Manhattan Beach instead of routing millions of passengers a year through LAX.
Right now Southern California is in a ‘chicken little’ mode and nothing done other than report generation will result in nothing accomplished. This in turn will result in the loss of millions of dollars worth of business and of thousands of jobs.
(Kay Martin is a writer and a new contributor to CityWatch. His years of travel included tours in Russia, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australia, Hawaii, Latin America … and, three years in Panama.) -cw
Tags: LA Ports, Panama, Panama Canal, revenue, jobs, Southern California, Chicken Little
Vol 10 Issue 2
Pub: Jan 6, 2012