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Shouting match between MP, residents over Manzan road repair

...Peters: Too many complaints, few helpful suggestions
Published: 
Sunday, December 14, 2014
A Junior Sammy machine operator uses a tractor to cut an access road parallel to the Manzanilla Main Road, on Thursday. Heavy rains and rising flood waters on November 16, led to the collapse of a large portion of the Manzanilla/Mayaro Main Road, cutting off the main access road into the area. PHOTO: ABRAHAM DIAZ

Martine Powers

For two researchers at the University of the West Indies, the disaster that struck the Manzanilla/Mayaro Road last month was hardly surprising. Scientists Denyse Mahabir and Dr Leonard Nurse conducted an extensive study of coastal erosion and projected sea level rise in Manzanilla and reached some scary conclusions which they published in a report in 2007.

“The rapid rate of erosion...has serious implications for the very existence of the road,” they wrote in the report. “At the current rate of erosion, the road may cease to exist in 2-3 years, if no intervention is made.” 

Last month, their dire predictions came true: Major sections of the Manzanilla/Mayaro Road crumbled after days of heavy rain and flooding, rendering the road impassable. Now, government officials are working to reopen the road as quickly as possible, but they’re also facing a much more formidable task: How will they build a road that’s flood-proof for years to come?

Design plans prepared by the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure (MOWI) indicate that officials are backing off from more ambitious ideas and costly strategies for rebuilding, such as elevating the roadway or moving it further away from the coastline. nstead, they’re focusing on rebuilding the road with deep drains, installing wide culverts that will funnel swamp water out to the ocean, and using giant, mattress-sized baskets of rock to prevent further erosion along the coastline.

It’s part of an attempt to strike a balance—the need to provide a quick fix with aspirations of investing in a more thoughtful long-term solution for the road. 

“We could be building a temporary road with the same problems, and next year, please God, we catch a high tide and the road wash in again,” said Shawn Charles, a 30-year-old Mayaro resident who attended a Thursday meeting on the Manzanilla/Mayaro Road. “Are we looking at the real issues with stopping whatever it is that caused the huge influx of water to come towards the roadway? Or are we just deciding that we’re going to bypass that and build our road anyway?”

Expert: Pause and consider

Weighing the demand for speedy repairs against the need for long-term solutions is a challenge that cities all over the world are facing as they deal with flooding caused by rising sea levels and changing weather patterns, said Larry Buss, of The Association of State Floodplain Managers, a US organisation that focuses on flood preparedness and recovery.

Buss said that engineers who try to rebuild flooded roads exactly as they were before are making a huge mistake: coastal floods will only become more frequent in coming years.

“Politicians, administrators, local people, residents—they want the road back as soon as possible,” Buss said. “The problem with doing that is they’re spending money right now, and going to have to spend the same money again.” Buss said that government officials should use damaged roads as an opportunity to pause and consider investing in new, innovative designs that offer a chance of withstanding heavy flooding in the future.

“A disaster is only a disaster if you rebuild exactly the way it was before,” Buss said. “Something like this always creates opportunities for you to do something better.” But, he added, “most people don’t see it that way.” 

The long-term future of the Manzanilla/Mayaro Road is an issue that has concerned residents, too. At a Thursday meeting with Mayaro residents in the town's civic centre, locals clamoured for details on the long-term future of the roadway, and how engineering officials intended to prevent the road from incurring similar damage after future rainstorms. Some wondered whether there was a possibility of elevating the roadway several feet off the ground.

“Our biggest concern is not to let it happen again,” said Mayaro resident Imran Jan. 

But when residents asked for details on the rebuilding plan, they received few answers: They learned that there were no MOWI engineers present at the meeting to explain the plan. MP Winston Peters of Mayaro and MOWI Environmental Health Director Doolar Ramlal said the agency decided not to show residents the slideshow presentation of the construction plan for road repairs because it had been deemed too “technical” for residents to understand. 

Peters berated residents for arriving at the meeting with too many complaints and too few helpful suggestions about what could be done to help rebuild the road in the short-term. Long-term investments to widen or elevate the road are not prudent, he added, because of the government’s plans to eventually build a highway from Valencia to Mayaro that would divert much of the traffic from the coastal roads. 

At times, the meeting erupted into shouting matches between Peters and frustrated residents standing at the mic who asked for clear answers on the anticipated timeline of repairs. “I want to say to you, how much faster you want them to build the road?” Peters asked. “In this case, ‘abracadabra’ would not have worked...The Government did this in the quickest possible time that it could have been done.” “You saying two weeks?” the resident at the mic asked.

“I’m saying it’s going to be done in the quickest possible time.”

Long-term plans for the roadway
But there is some indication of how MOWI engineers intend to improve the roadway in the long-term. The presentation prepared by the agency on the tentative design plans for the rebuilding process suggest that their plans are less ambitious—and less expensive—than re-routing or elevating the road. Instead, they plan to improve drainage and use innovative techniques to prevent further erosion.

Engineers will focus on seven or eight “breaches”—natural waterways gouged out by last month’s torrential rainwater—that funnel water from the road out into the ocean. Instead of filling these breaches, the MOWI presentation said, officials plan to maintain them, providing the swampy water from the western side of the road an escape route to prevent the road from becoming waterlogged.

Construction workers will also line those drainage channels with “marine mattresses”—large mats of gridded synthetic material that are stuffed with rocks, about the size and shape of a large bedroom mattress. These mattresses will be laid onto the banks of the waterways to prevent more of the sandy beach from washing away in future storms.

The new version of the road will also feature deep drains on either side, a feature that was sorely lacking before last month’s storm. There will be a pipe running underneath the road with a valve that will allow floodwater from the swamp to escape out into the ocean, but will prevent salty ocean water from pushing back underneath the road and contaminating the wetland on the west side of the Manzanilla/Mayaro Road.

According to the MOWI report, the first phase of that construction is set to last two months and cost $57 million to complete. Contractors working on the flood-damaged road have been given a Christmas deadline to restore the link between the two communities to allow for light to medium traffic. The road-repair project, which began on Monday, includes acquiring two to three properties along the Manzanilla stretch to put proper drainage and road infrastructure in place.