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Virginia Tech students help Haitian residents build a bridge to span dangerous floodwaters

Children in the mountain village of Ti Peligre, Haiti, needed safe passage across a treacherous river to reach school. To help, a dozen Virginia Tech students – determined to prevent more drownings – designed and helped build a 200-foot bridge.

“We decided early on that we did not want to be the Americans coming down to build a bridge,” said Nick Mason, a graduate student in civil engineering from Richmond, Va., who served as project manager for the Virginia Tech team. “We wanted the Haitians to build their own bridge.”

   

The 200-foot-long suspension bridge over the Thomonde River will allow residents of Ti Peligre, Haiti, to get emergency medical care, take their produce to market, and send their children to schooling beyond the fourth grade. The 200-foot-long suspension bridge over the Thomonde River will allow residents of Ti Peligre, Haiti, to get emergency medical care, take their produce to market, and send their children to schooling beyond the fourth grade.

For as long as villagers could remember, people lost their lives when the rains came and river waters swelled. The crossing leads to an adjoining community with school, markets, and access to medical care.

A dozen students – working with Pamplin College of Business Professor Bryan Cloyd and faith-based communities in Blacksburg, Va., – took several trips to Haiti over more than a year to help residents build the suspended footbridge. Spaghetti dinners helped raise funds, and students founded Bridges to Prosperity at Virginia Tech for extra technical support.

The bridge was dedicated in spring 2011. Villagers celebrated with food, balloons, and brass bands. One of the residents said he wished he could open up his heart for the students to see how happy he was.

At least one Ti Peligre resident, a woman once dehydrated from cholera, credited the bridge with saving her life. Without the bridge, passage across the swollen river would have been time-consuming or impossible.

   

Nick Mason, a graduate student in civil engineering from Richmond, Va., was the project manager for the Virginia Tech students who volunteered with the bridge. Nick Mason, a graduate student in civil engineering from Richmond, Va., was the project manager for the Virginia Tech students who volunteered with the bridge.

To start the bridge project, the students first had to figure out “which tasks we needed to oversee and which we could simply teach the Haitians to do on their own,” Mason said. “For example, we knew that setting the cables was the most technical task, which we needed to oversee. But building the decking could be completely done by the Haitians.”

James Paul, a civil engineering student from Haiti’s University Quisqueya, worked on site with the Virginia Tech team and helped supervise much of the villagers’ work.

The Virginia Tech students drew their design from the manual published by the international Bridges to Prosperity organization, said civil engineering student Chris Cooke, a senior from Hampton, Va.

The Virginia Tech group wanted to ensure structural integrity of the bridge abutments in case of future earthquakes and hurricanes, so Will Collins of Christiansburg, Va., a doctoral student in structural engineering, added reinforcing and masonry wall volume to the original design.

Zach Lawler of Reston, Va., an aerospace and ocean engineering student who graduated in spring 2011, was another lead designer for the project.

“The outcome involved adding horizontal and vertical rebar to the concrete and additional masonry volume in the tiers of the bridge,” Mason said. “Actually, it was a fun challenge – we did some of it under headlamps and candlelight while we were in Haiti.”

To ensure the bridge was constructed according to design, the Virginia Tech students laid out the excavation site for the abutment foundations and anchor locations, Cooke said. They used gravity anchors, which are rebar cages encased in concrete and buried underground to hold the bridge’s cables. The team also “set the cable sag,” which meant tensioning the cables so that the lowest point on the bridge sags below the highest point of the walkway.

   

“Bridges to Prosperity recommends filling the bridge with people during the dedication ceremony so that local people will trust the strength of the bridge,” said Matt Capelli, who completed his master’s degree in civil engineering in 2011. “Bridges to Prosperity recommends filling the bridge with people during the dedication ceremony so that local people will trust the strength of the bridge,” said Matt Capelli, who completed his master’s degree in civil engineering in 2011.

The completed bridge spans 197 feet and can hold about 42,000 pounds, Collins said.

The Rotary Club in Blacksburg gave $100,000 to the group.

Two new projects in Saltadere and LaShambre, Haiti, have the potential to impact one of the country’s largest, most isolated regions.

Matt Capelli of Mechanicsville, Va., completed his master’s degree in 2011 in civil and environmental engineering and is currently enrolled in the MBA program in the Pamplin College of Business. He said, “Once built, the bridges will help residents in the rugged and mountainous Central Plateau to have unlimited, year-round access to the Saint Therese clinic in Hinche, the Zanmi Lasante hospitals located in Cange and Mirebalais, and schools and markets throughout the region. The bridge will serve thousands of Haitian residents in the immediate area surrounding the project location as well as other Haitians who commute through the area.”

  • Liz Crumbley of Outreach and International Affairs and Kelcey Thurman, a senior from Lynchburg, Va., who is a communication major in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, contributed to this report.
  • For more information on this topic, contact Andrea Brunais at 540-231-4691.

Multimedia: About the effort

    Virginia Tech students and Haitian villagers worked together to build the bridge.

Virginia Tech students spent two years working on the bridge for the village of Ti Peligre, Haiti.

  • Watch a video about the bridge's construction and its impact on the community.
  • See a photo gallery from the trips.

Some supplies prove challenging to ship

Spools of steel cables were the hardest materials to procure to Haiti, said Nick Mason, a graduate student in civil engineering from Richmond, Va., who served as project manager for the Virginia Tech team.

The spools were provided by Bridges to Prosperity in the United State and shipped to Port-au-Prince with the help of Partners in Health (PIH), Mason said.

“These cables had to go through customs in Haiti, which is always an unknown. So, when we arrived in Haiti on our third trip, the cable had not come through customs yet,” he said. “However, on our third day in Haiti, the cables miraculously got through right when we needed to start using them.

“I believe it would have taken longer for the cable to get through customs had we not been in partnership with PIH. Some PIH workers even arranged transportation from Port-au-Prince to Ti Peligre. The rest of the materials, except for small things we could fit in suitcases, were purchased in Haiti.”

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