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Bridge Damage Hampers Mitch Relief

November 16, 1998

CHOLUTECA, Honduras (AP) _ The graceful arches of the New Choluteca Bridge stand abandoned, a white concrete sculpture far from shore, linking nothing to nowhere.

A fitting monument to Hurricane Mitch.

Mitch turned the usually amiable Choluteca River into a killer. Its muddy waters roared through this southern city, carrying off people and houses and wiping out nearly a mile of roads leading to the bridge.

Today, two weeks after the storm killed 10,000 people in its rampage through Central America, one of the most urgent tasks Honduras faces is rebuilding the 94 bridges that were lost.

``Bridges are the top priority for us,″ said Moises Starkman Pinel, minister for international cooperation. ``We are not asking for the money. We are asking the different donor countries for their help in setting up temporary bridges.″

Without bridges, the government must rely on planes and helicopters to get emergency food and medicine to needy areas. It’s costly and inefficient _ and Hondurans know this type of aid can’t last.

In the long run, Starkman said, the loss of bridges could worsen hunger and unemployment, frustrating the efforts of farmers and businesses to get their good to market.

This month, 224 Marines and 200 members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are to arrive at Soto Cano Air Base in the midwestern province of Comayagua to began building bridges.

The quickest and easiest to install is a vintage World War II, iron-and-plank affair called a Bailey bridge. The United States plans to send nearly a half-mile of Bailey bridges, which could be installed within 12 days. But it is not clear when they will get here.

``I understand they’re driving them down,″ said Army Capt. Geoff Fischer.

For now, the government said only two bridges were being rebuilt. But no work crews were visible at those sites in Tegucigalpa and Choluteca.

The National Emergency Committee said the bridge at Choluteca was being repaired by Japanese teams. But no work was being done during a recent visit, and the Japanese workers who finished the bridge in May were actually pulling out and heading to the north of the country.

The employees of the Hazama Corporation said they needed to build a flood-control dam to repair damage done by Hurricane Fifi in 1974.

The Choluteca bridge itself is perfect, the Japanese engineers said _ except that it now straddles dry land. Mitch changed the course of the Choluteca River, and there is water where the access roads used to be.

Chunks of asphalt jut from a plain of fine brown silt that once was river bed. A few black rubber irrigation lines are all that remain of the former melon plantation. A crushed taxi lies on the bank where the road washed out.

``Now, there is no solution,″ said Kinoshita Kenichi, a 28-year-old civil engineer from Tokyo. ``It is very difficult to change the current. (The river) is in a totally different place.″

For now, the city depends on the old bridge, a one-lane relic built by the United States in 1937. Under a blazing sun, long lines of cars form on either side as drivers wait their turn to cross.

About 120 miles to the northwest, residents of Comayagua wait anxiously for someone to repair their link with La Paz, an important coffee-growing region.

Mitch knocked out the 307-foot bridge across the Umuya River, and the only way to cross is in leaky wooden barges pulled by ropes.

Elmer Roberto Chinchilla, a lawyer, climbed slowly up the sandy bank, limping from a scorpion bite. Instead of his normal hour-long commute, it took him three.

``This is too much sacrifice,″ he said. ``We need help from the Americans or the Japanese, but I think they have forgotten us.″

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