Huge yellow dump trucks resemble Tonka toys in a sand pile as they haul tons of rust-colored dirt and basalt rock from a 56-foot gash in the earth that will become a new access channel in the $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal.
The trucks keep rumbling up muddy terraced slopes as a quick-moving storm blurs the horizon. The rain chases away workers pouring concrete for a mammoth set of locks that will lift super-size ships for their transit across the narrow Isthmus of Panama, but the crews are back in the pit as soon as the sun returns.
By April 2015, it will all be under water, ready for the ever-bigger vessels revolutionizing international trade. The expansion is expected to double the canal’s capacity.
The 2015 target is about six months behind schedule, but U.S. ports are still scrambling to ready their channels for so-called post-Panamax ships, and some say they welcome the reprieve. At this point, Baltimore and Norfolk, Va., are the only ports along the Eastern Seaboard with channels deep enough to handle the vessels when they’re fully loaded.
It’s a race for deep water as ports up and down the East Coast and along the Gulf of Mexico make plans to dredge their channels, shore up their docks or rustle up funding for renovations to receive the big ships. Many won’t be ready by the time water floods the new locks.
Latin American and Caribbean ports also are trying to figure out how to capitalize on the expansion.
As this new phase of canal construction nears completion with 13,000 people working around the clock, there is renewed interest in preserving the history of the old Panama Canal Zone as well as the legacy of those who worked and died building the canal.