Expanded Canal Opens In Panama

Jun 26, 2016
Originally published on June 29, 2016 8:10 am
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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Now it's time for our regular segment Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories in the news by parsing some of the words associated with those stories. This week's word is neo-Panamax. The word has something to do with the new Panama Canal that opens today. It's an expanded Panama Canal, an unparalleled construction project that took about a decade to build and cost more than $5 billion. It's been the stuff of national pride for Panamanians. And joining us from Panama City to talk about the word neo-Panamax is NPR's Carrie Kahn. Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, Ray. It's great to talk to you.

SUAREZ: It's a historic day today in Panama. What's it been like there? Where are you right now?

KAHN: Right now, I'm at one of the viewing stations that they've set up around the country. I'm in the capital, Panama City. We're this beautiful park, right at the edge of the water, with the amazing Panama City skyscraper-filled seawall. And everybody's gathering here to watch this historic day, like you said. Everybody has the Panamanian flag that was handed to them as they walked into the park by the army. And they're taking pictures and waving, and you can hear the music in the background. It's a very, very happy day here in Panama.

SUAREZ: We've seen the word neo-Panamax a lot these days. What does it mean?

KAHN: Well, you've got to start with the word Panamax, which means the size of the boat that can fit through the existing 100-year-old Panama Canal. And that boat can hold about 5,000 cargo ship containers - you know, those 20-foot-long cargo ship containers. So the neo-Panamax - the new Panamax - can hold up to 14,000 - nearly three times the amount of cargo that can go through the existing canal. The existing canal couldn't hold these huge ships, so they had to build, and they had to expand it. And they've built two new sets of locks that can hold these neo-Panamax ships.

SUAREZ: So basically a jumbo ship, the biggest ship that can pass through a bigger canal. Is it a tight fit, the way it was for the old Panamax ships? I've seen them go through the old canal with what looks like just a few inches to spare on either side.

KAHN: Well, that is a big question because the locks in this new expanded canal - let's - OK, not to do too much math, but they're 1,400 feet long. A neo-Panamax ship is 1,200 feet long, so you've got 100 feet on each end of that. And you put a tugboat there to pull and push it through. That's a hundred feet, so there is such small margin of error. There's hardly any room, as you said. And the pilots we've been speaking to are the ones who have to sail these ships through there. They're very concerned about how tight these locks are.

SUAREZ: The expansion project was behind schedule and over budget. Have there been serious questions about the quality of the construction and design, along with these concerns you just mentioned?

KAHN: There have been. It was two years late. They wanted to open this new canal on the hundred-year anniversary of the original canal, but they couldn't do that. And it's about 2 billion dollars over budget from the original price that was estimated. There were questions about concrete, and there's questions about the size, like we said, of the locks. There's also questions about whether there'll be enough water. Panama just had a very difficult dry season where the existing canal had to restrict drafts and restrict weight limits for the boats that were going to the old canals. It has these water-saving devices, but it's going to need twice as much water to run two canals.

SUAREZ: So the word is neo-Panamax. Thanks, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome, Ray. Thanks.

SUAREZ: NPR's Carrie Kahn speaking to us from Panama City, where, starting today, the Panama Canal is open to neo-Panamax ships. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.