Walking down the road with a camera and bureaucratic eyes

So, when walking along the Pan-American Highway in Penonome, possessed of bureaucratic Rust Belt eyes from various minor urban policy posts in a small Michigan city, would this set off some alarms, and give rise to longer-term considerations?

A point to consider mundane local maintenance and the global climate

photos and observation by Eric Jackson

The plan was to step off the bus as it gets into the Penonome town center, and start to walk. Holidays are approaching and near the Super 99 up the highway there are a couple of small Chinese grocery stores where the staples I sought are to be had — dried Chinese mushrooms, some fresh mustard greens and some cold and sweet caffeine-rich soft drinks that aren’t in the western format of carbonated sugar water topped the list. Then, further along at the Boulevard, more grocery items and the specific bus I wanted to catch back to the village.

The maleantes stole enough cameras from me in 2021, so apart from anything else I didn’t want to leave the gifted Fujifilm digital camera for them in case they decided to intrude again. Plus, I like to walk around with a camera concealed in my bag, to take out and record things that catch my eye and strike my mind as noteworthy. I had walked this route before.

WHAT? The orange warning mesh had washed away from the sidewalk’s edge and into the drain, as you can see above?

The law here is not like up there. For all the lawyers Panama has, there is as a practical matter hardly any personal injury law here. And even up there, would this roadside hazard put the public treasury of a jurisdiction up there in peril under the hazardous road exception to sovereign immunity? Were I to subscribe to Lexis or the like I could look it up, but what’s the point down here? And while I am at it, much more within the Panamanian culture, WHOSE jurisdiction? Come the rains and some kid falls in and drowns, and the circular finger point would commence.

‘It’s the Ministry of Public Works, being the side of the nation’s main drag.’

‘No, no — it’s something through which wastes flow off into the sea — that’s IDAAN, the water and sewer utility.’

‘Wait a minute, that’s a storm drain, not a sewer. Go after the municipio.’

‘Whatever the age, whosoever shall fall off the sidewalk into what functions as a water catch basin is a fool who brought on his or her own fate.’

‘Oh, yeah? But the sidewalk’s crumbling, too!’

Yadda yadda yadda, except maybe some official wants to be paid before blame gets assigned. Bienvenidos a Panamá.

Yep. A drain coming off the highway and under the sidewalk is clearly collapsing. But just because it’s supposed to empty into the gorge shown at the top of the page, does that have anything to do with anything? And if some old man in a wheelchair fall in the cracks and spills out into oncoming traffic, isn’t that HIS fault for being out in public in a wheelchair? But look up the road a bit. It’s crumbling and that may because of an even larger drainage problem.

Set aside risks to persons and blame if someone is killed or injured for a moment. There is, first of all, the common enough risk to the national economy of the country’s most important road being at least partially closed by a cave-in caused by bad drainage. If one wants to be a hard-ass about assigning blame, one might start by looking for the inspector who signed off on the original work. Likely some several administrations ago patronage job recipient who did his or her five years and went on to other things. And then, look again into the hole — this is a problem that has been percolating for some time, with signs of multiple patches and additions.

Barely visible there is a rectangular hole below the sidewalk of the side street in the photo below? Is that for water coming down the hill with that side street? Or is it for any overflow doesn’t quickly enough flow into the drainage tube at the bottom, which you can’t see, and which flows who knows where? Does overflow when this is in tropical cloudburst catch basin mode go through that rectangle and flow under or in front of the businesses across the side street?

Patches upon patches. Improvised plans. Perhaps the acceptance of work that should never have been accepted. And that’s just the micro view.

Maybe it’s the start of dry season and this is an old problem that’s known and will be fixed in some way or another before the heavy rains come again.

Ah, but you imagine that the cycles that you have grown to know are forever? You imagine that the climate can’t or won’t change? And you’re not ever working for a fossil fuel company where the profession of belief in such things is a job requirement?

The reality of Panama’s storm drains is that they are already inadequate, that when high tide coincides with heavy rains the storm drains lose suction and there is flooding. With mean sea levels slowly and inexorably rising, this problem is going to get worse. It’s a huge and expensive set of civil engineering problems. Climate change is here, it’s going to get worse and restoring the old to mint condition is not going to work.

Walking down the street, by The Improv. Not an infrastructure solution that well contemplates what’s coming.

Do we need to call in the gringos? The USA has its climate adaptation problems on a much grander scale. Perhaps an embassy attaché from the US Army Corps of Engineers might be helpful, but we have competent engineers and Panama Technological University is good enough that it can be ramped up to give us the additions ones we will need. People and institutions here should think and act for ourselves, on a collective basis for the whole society. 

Think entirely reworked storm drain systems, and law enforcement that does not allow developers to thwart them at their convenience. Think roads re-routed in places, and certainly investing in more inland and upland structures instead of putting everything along the present Pan-American Highway. Thing of seawalls and dikes and levees and pumping stations, and perhaps some low-lying areas subject to building codes that don’t allow for the replacement of what is as it was. Look at their record and styles of work and shudder at the prospect of putting the Panama Canal Authority in charge of national water policy, but we do need a major overhaul that includes canal needs but also takes care of the whole country.

We can continue to improvise with a different set of political hirees every five years,  but Panama can do so much better. We can look at little situations like this, or at things like the recent drainage-caused road collapse on the ensanche from the Bridge of the Americas to Arraijan’s town center, and do the arithmetic. We have major work to do, if we are to handle things in any adequate fashion.


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