PANAMA CANAL -- When it was first constructed more than 100 years ago, an American-led effort created the Panama Canal, a vital link between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Now, it is in need of a 21st-century upgrade, and it is finally getting one.
For nearly a decade, workers have been undertaking a monumental task to expand the Panama Canal.
At the narrowest section of the Americas, the herculean process is underway to connect two of the world’s oceans.
“We can hope that what we’ve done today is going to last another 100 years,” said Mario Finis, MWH Senior Vice President.
Thousands of workers are putting the finishing touches on the newly-expanded Panama Canal. It runs parallel to the original one. After nearly a decade of construction, a new set of gates and a deeper channel are now complete, meaning the canal will now be able to handle cargo ships three times the size of an average one.
That could redefine how ports on the East Coast and along the Gulf Coast handle shipments from Asia. That includes New Orleans, one of many port cities that have sent delegations to the canal to learn more about the canal expansion.
“We received people from Georgia, from Charleston, from Miami, Houston, everybody…New Orleans. Everybody is excited about the expansion and they wanted to know what we are doing here because it’s going to affect them,” said Marianela Dengo de Obaldia, Manager of Strategic Relations for the Panama Canal.
John Duque is the Design Manager for MWH Global, the Colorado-based company leading the construction of the new Canal locks.
“I have been working eight years now. It’s a big project, it’s a huge project,” said Duque.
It is a huge project requiring thousands of workers. At any given time, 8,000 are working on it, split between construction sites on the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
“When you see it, it’s just incredibly impressive, what they’ve been able to build, just the size of it, the gates themselves,” said Wonnie Kim, MWH Senior Geotechnical Engineer. “When you see the whole thing, you see how far engineering has progressed from what they built 100 years ago to what we’re able to build now.”
It is a point of pride not just for those who worked on it, but for the entire nation of Panama, which considers itself a linchpin to the world because of the canal.
The people of Panama voted on whether or not they wanted to expand the Canal. 78 percent of voters supported the idea. The total cost of the expansion was more than $5 billion, though canal officials admit when all is said and done that figure will end up being higher.
The new, expanded Panama Canal will open for business at the end of June and the first vessel that will make its way through it, will be from China.