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Bridge Collapse Rips a Tiny, New Pacific Nation

A one-time US colony in the South Pacific struggles to rebuild its link to prosperity

In late September 1996, things were humming in the tiny Republic of Palau.

Just two years before, on Oct. 1, 1994, the country had achieved independence and brief fame as the last United Nations Trust Territory to be decolonized.

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Two years later, its 17,000 citizens were caught up in a wave of "exuberant post-independence optimism," according to political scientist Robert Churney of Palau Community College.

Under a 15-year Compact of Free Association with the United States - a device also accepted by Palau's neighbors, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands - the US uses Palauan military facilities in exchange for $410 million in aid.

In the post-independence boom, housing, retail, and hotel construction in the capital, Koror, increased dramatically, driven by capital from the US funds and a 15-percent annual increase in tourism.

The country's Japanese-Palauan president, Kuniwo Nakamura - who engineered the transition to independence after more than a decade of intense debate over how to reconcile Palau's antinuclear Constitution with a wish for "free association" with the US - easily won a presidential primary in September on his way to a second four-year term.

The government planned elaborate ceremonies to mark the second anniversary of independence Oct. 1, 1996, when perhaps half the 17,000 citizens of Palau were expected to gather for festivities on or near the KB Bridge. The bridge was the country's most important piece of infrastructure. It linked Koror, where most of the population lives, and Babelthaup, which is the country's biggest island - 153 square miles - but is largely undeveloped.

The nearly 20-year-old bridge had just been renovated at a cost of $2 million and would "last 100 years," the government said.

Collapsing dreams

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But on Sept. 26 at 5:45 p.m., the KB Bridge collapsed. Apparently without warning, its two great concrete spans fell into a 100-foot-deep ocean channel. A Palauan and his Filipino employee (one of the thousands of Filipino guest workers lured by Palau's construction boom) died.

The calamity now presents Palau with its biggest post-independence political challenge, and the signs are that political leaders are bent on recovery through litigation rather than immediately readjusting their economic plans.

The KB Bridge had been considered a Palauan icon, a masterpiece of engineering celebrated in tourist postcards and local artists' watercolors. It was the centerpiece of Palau's long-term economic plans that aim to reverse the drift of the population from Babelthaup to congested Koror.

Equalizing the economic balance between Koror and Babelthaup is also seen as key to the political, even spiritual equilibrium of Palau. Since ancient times, Palau has been governed by agreement between clans based on the two islands.

Babelthaup is the source of Koror's water and electricity and the site of Palau's only international airport, which is vital to bringing in tourists attracted by Palau's famed scuba-diving sites.

It is also the site of a new capital to replace Koror, a project in its early stages.

The bridge collapse immediately changed the shape of Palauan politics. The strongest of the president's two challengers, Koror lawyer Johnson Toribiong, suddenly withdrew from the race, citing Mr. Nakamura's lead in the primary and the bridge disaster.

A formal state of emergency was declared, then lifted 10 days later, and Nakamura easily won the Nov. 5 presidential election.

"It was as if the country had its throat cut," says one Australian resident who was forced to evacuate his wife and children when the sudden disruption of water supplies, previously carried by the bridge, threatened sanitation in late September.

Water, electricity, telephone, and cable TV services were largely restored, with temporary pipes and cables strung across the KB Bridge piers. But water and especially electricity outages still occur almost every day.

Next to the old KB Bridge piers, small passenger ferries now depart every few minutes. Free bus transport is provided to both sides of the channel.

Hundreds of Palauans make the crossing each day, with air freight from the Continental Micronesia flights from Guam or Manila carried across on the small, overworked boats.

Only a few private vehicles can make the crossing by barge each day. A new, larger vehicle ferry, the "KB Queen," purchased by the Palau government from the Philippines, arrived at Koror's port before Christmas and is expected to start operations by the end of January. But tourist buses, not Palauans' vehicles, will have priority on the KB Queen.

Emergency transportation cost the Palau government about $2 million through the first week of December.

Nakamura has received authorization from the Palau Congress for $3.8 million for a temporary bridge, expected to be built by Japan's Daiho Corporation.

The temporary structure will be in service for about four years, Nakamura says, while a permanent replacement could take three years or more to finish.

The short-term costs of the bridge collapse are beginning to show, especially in tourism.

More than 70,000 tourists visited Palau in 1996, compared with 48,000 in 1995. The first year of Palau's independence saw a 15 percent rise in hotel tax receipts ($826,000 in 1995).

But the official Palau Visitors Authority reports an 11 percent reduction in tourist arrivals in November, with Japanese tourists declining 46 percent from November 1995 figures.

Building boom undeterred

The bridge collapse will not affect new hotel construction in Koror, which has the country's main port, but it has already forced many Palauan families and firms to postpone plans to move to Babelthaup because the big island has no port to unload Palau's mostly imported construction materials. The closed bridge will also affect plans to extend Palau's short airport runway.

On Oct. 8, Vice President Tommy Remengesau told a meeting of the Palau Chamber of Commerce the disaster "leads us back to revisit our [capital improvement program] priorities." But so far, there is little sign planning priorities have been reviewed.

Instead, Nakamura seems bent on litigation to get monetary compensation for the bridge collapse.

When completed in 1977, the KB Bridge was the world's largest structure of its type.

Palauans had grumbled, however, about its rough construction, largely because of a bump at the apogee of its arch, which had grown alarmingly in recent years.

Its renovation became a key plank in Nakamura's political program. The repaired structure was completed Aug. 6, six weeks before it collapsed.

Circumstantial evidence points to the repair work as the most likely cause.

The administration has commissioned a forensic engineering study of the reasons for the collapse, following an inconclusive preliminary report by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

"For reasons unknown," the Army Corps report said, "the main span of the bridge was a total loss due to a chain-reaction-type failure that is suspected to have started at the top deck slab near the main pier."

Nakamura estimates the new forensic study will take six to eight months to complete and says it should identify "the parties responsible for the injuries we have all suffered."

Many Koror lawyers, however, see the litigation as a waste of time. "To pursue the compensation option requires leaving the collapsed bridge intact so both sides can conduct their own forensic studies," says one Koror lawyer who requests anonymity.

"But the Palau government will need to clear the existing approaches to the KB Bridge to build a permanent replacement bridge," he adds.

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