A Day in the Field – Month 5

I wrote this just after my boss and I had returned from visiting this project site, a special road construction project that was relatively low cost but extremely high profile, and at least a year behind schedule by the time I wrote this. I’d been assigned the project about one month prior, taking over from someone who had redeployed to the States. Although the ludicrous problems encountered on this project had been a mainstay of office jokes for months, by this time the project was quickly becoming more of an aggravation to me than an entertainment. This particular day was, however, hilarious all over again, offering all sorts enduring fodder for jokes within its details. The day was really only unique in that we spent enough time at the site to personally witness the plethora of problems this contractor encountered almost daily.

January 2007

… After we’d fed a puppy bologna from our sandwiches (yes, the kitchen feeds us bologna sandwiches – on white bread, no less), Boss Tom and I knocked on the office trailer door and found the contractor’s project manager, Whiny William, tearing at his hair. The site had run out of gravel yesterday, about half an hour after I’d left the site, so the crew had stopped paving. Again. Captain Abu Gotti (I’ll call him) had gone running around in the middle of the night to try to buy more gravel. Having miraculously been successful, trucks were coming in now but they weren’t making it all the way to the asphalt plant. The Bedu*, who drive dump trucks for this project, wouldn’t let the gravel trucks into the yard.

The Bedu truck drivers had announced a strike early this morning, warning the front-end loader operators, and now the arriving gravel truck drivers, that they should not work or they would be shot. Since the Bedu have shot people before, everyone complied. Having successfully brought work to a standstill, the Bedu were demanding that their wages be raised to six times what they are currently being paid. (Our PSD team members were highly amused by the boldness and audacity of the amount of the raise the Bedu were demanding; they spent a good bit of the morning discussing trying a strike themselves.)

In addition to the Bedu difficulties, the computer that runs the asphalt plant had quit working. The only engineer who knows everything about the asphalt plant had left the site last evening because his brother had been shot and killed outside his house in Baghdad. The second engineer, who knows a little bit about fixing the asphalt plant, was not on site either. He had gone to [-] City for parts for some other piece of equipment (could be anything, really, or nothing – just a story).

All this took over an hour for Whiny William to recount to us, as he included all the dramatic details, a tedious dose of aggressive whining, and all the other usual intricately detailed excuses as to why the road won’t be finished by the end of February as promised.

As we began to sag under the weight of Whiny William’s rant, a driver for the scheduled bitumen delivery arrived. Mr Driver told us that he had only brought five tanks today, though we’d ordered ten, and that he had also, inexplicably, brought a sixth tank empty. (As the man spoke almost no English and only the most rudimentary Arabic, getting this story straight took some doing … ) In order to understand the implications of Mr Driver’s announcement, I’ll have to explain some background. This gets screwy, so stay with me (it’s like one of those stupid math problems from algebra class):

Instead of the Road Contractor obtaining his own bitumen as would normally be the case, our own agency is responsible for supplying the bitumen for the Road Contractor. Our office runs the bitumen contract for this road project as a separate contract out of Kuwait (which is its own sad story, and too intricate to recount here …). I’ll call the bitumen delivery contractor, logically, Delivery Contractor. This Delivery Contractor uses seven Road Contractor tankers, and five of their own. So technically Bitumen Delivery Contractor could deliver eleven tanks each time we place an order for bitumen on behalf of the Road Contractor, which would ideally happen twice a week. But the Delivery Contractor’s contract ran out over a month ago (which our Kuwait-based contracting officer didn’t bother telling us until just this last Sunday – these are the ones on our team, hooah!). Because he’s working without a contract, the Bitumen Delivery Contractor says he will only deliver 400 MT (metric tons) of bitumen each week, and he’s going to return Road Contractor’s seven 30MT tanks because, for whatever reason, he now refuses to use them.

Road Contractor claims that Delivery Contractor damaged one of the Road Contractor’s tanks: it fell off a truck and rolled. (How does a 30MT tank fall off a truck, you wonder? Well, this is Iraq. Anything is possible!). We are responsible for fixing that damaged tank before it’s returned to Road Contractor. (I don’t know why Delivery Contractor isn’t responsible for fixing it, since it fell off of his truck … this is just one of many mysteries that I inherited when I was assigned to this project. I’m afraid to ask for the details, believing they’ll only piss me off.)

So today, Bitumen Delivery Contractor brought five of Road Contractor’s seven tanks, and one of their own. (Why not six of Road Contractor’s tanks? Why not all seven? Another mystery…) Because Delivery Contractor will only deliver 400MT of bitumen, one of the tanks that Delivery Contractor brought today is empty. But that empty tank is not the Road Contractor’s tank. (Yes, they drove an empty tank here from Kuwait, which they will then simply drive back to Kuwait. Yet another baffling mystery.)

As I said above, Mr Head Driver explained (using four languages including sign language) that just one tank was to be off-loaded and left at the site, and five were to return to Kuwait. We said – No, no, you mean the five Road Contractor tanks are to be left on site, and the one Bitumen Delivery Contractor tank will return to Kuwait. Using animated and energetic hand signals, one word in Arabic (“yes”), some East Indian words (many), and one word of English (“no”), Head Driver told us, basically, No, no, I was told to leave only one! I will leave only one tank. No discussion!

Whiny William had expected to be off-loading an unknown number of tanks from the flatbed trucks, having been told that the Delivery Contractor would be returning some of his tanks. So he’d ordered a crane for the day, which was having to travel all the way from [-] City and was due to arrive any minute. If Head Driver was only going to allow one tank to be off-loaded, Whiny William had hired an expensive crane for a ludicrously small job, giving Whiny William something else to rant at us about.

Having listened to Whiny William (for almost two hours now) whine and rant about the truckers striking and the assassination of his head engineer’s brother, and why he can no longer finish paving by 28 Feb by showing us the mathematics of asphalt in metric tons and linear meters, including bitumen and gravel delivery schedules and strikes and breakdowns; and after listening to him try to explain why they ran out of gravel when we’ve already paid them for all of their materials; and … whatever … we were happy to be distracted with an attempt to straighten out the one tank/five tanks confusion ourselves by calling a man at the contracting office in Kuwait, who would – hopefully – be able to contact the Head Driver’s boss, who would – hopefully – be able to contact the Head Driver and tell him – in his own East Indian language – to leave the five tanks and bring back one tank, not leave one tank and return to Kuwait with five.

We would have used Whiny Williams sat[ellite] phone for the call, but it wasn’t getting a signal. Not unusual at this project, being as it’s out in the boony-land of the desert and many things that work everywhere else in the world do not work here. Cell phones often don’t work at the site, either, although sometimes if you stand atop a truck and the barometric pressure is just right and the stars have come together in some special astrological alignment, you can eke out a signal. Desperate to escape Whiny William, Boss Tom and I pulled Head Driver out the door and we all drove over to the bitumen loading site with the excuse that we might get a cell signal there on the high ground of the loading dock.

High ground must be understood to be a relative description. The dirt mound that is the bitumen off-loading ramp at the asphalt plant site towers a full, oh, three meters above the surrounding desert. Maybe four. This modest high point offers a surprisingly spectacular long view of the surrounding desert, including a good overview of the adjacent asphalt plant to the east (non-functioning of course, lacking gravel and a functioning computer), and an excellent view of the striking Bedu, trucks rounded up into a sort of circle-the-wagons formation about half a kilometer away to the west.

The three meter tall (maybe four) bitumen loading dock is saturated with spilled fuel and spilled bitumen, which no one paid any attention to as they lit up their smokes. Safety and health regulations at this project are pathetic. (I’ve been told not to bother pursuing that contract violation. Hm.)

Here on the fuel and bitumen saturated high ground, then, surrounded by six bitumen tanker trucks, thirteen stationary bitumen tanks, a few curious Iraqi workers, nine bored PSD men with guns, two or three smug Iraqi guards with guns, and six anxious bitumen tanker drivers, Tom and I discussed whom to phone. Workers ducked in and out of a makeshift shade shelter of sticks and canvas, taking turns wandered past as close as they dared, eyeballing us. I riffled through my little black book to see what numbers I had written down, which would limit our options.

We had two cell phones but those didn’t work – no signal. As we pondered this problem, one of the Iraqis from the stick shelter walked over to a fuel tank thirty meters north of us, climbed up onto the top of it, and dialed his cell phone. He then held the phone high up in the air above his head and started shouting into it. Well! He was obviously getting a signal. We eyed the tank trucks behind us, wondering if we could climb up on top of one. Instead, our PSD team suggested we try their sat phones.

We had three sat phones, then, and four phone numbers. One of the sat phones didn’t get a signal. Good thing we had three. Two of the phone numbers we had were for contacts in Kuwait, but the calls weren’t going through. Two of the phone numbers were for people back at our own office, but no one was answering the phones. We used one of the functioning sat phones to keep trying the office numbers over and over, because if we didn’t get someone to tell Mr Head Driver, who only spoke rudimentary Arabic and three words of English and one fluent East Indian language of some kind, that he had to leave five trucks not one, he would have taken five trucks and left one. Which would have meant that the crane that the Whiny William had ordered to arrive on site, which was being driven all the way from [-] City to offload six tanks (by the way), would only offload one tank and … that was expensive, ludicrous, and ultimately unacceptable.

It took two hours of dialing to finally reach someone at the office who reached someone else at the office who called Kuwait for us. Kuwait then called us back, after first sending a text message to our other functioning sat phone too, just in case Mr Kuwait’s call hadn’t gotten through. He also sent an email to Whiny William (we found out later) (just in case-in case) to show to Mr Head Driver, telling him that he was to leave five tanks and bring one back to Kuwait. We showed Head Driver the text message, and put him on the sat phone with his boss, finally laying the one tank/five tank misunderstanding to rest.


We then drove back to the camp 1km away to tell Whiny William not to cancel the crane. Luckily he had not done that because he had received that email from Kuwait, and anyway he wouldn’t have been able to call to cancel the crane, as he had been unable to get a signal on his sat phone until the crane was just a few kilometers from arriving at the site.

In the meantime, during the two hours that we’d been dialing sat phones, the power in the camp had gone out, stranding Whiny William without a computer. The truckers were still on strike, the gravel was not unloaded, the asphalt plant computer was still not functioning, the asphalt plant engineer was not answering emails, the assistant engineer was nowhere to be found, and ….

Whatever. We interrupted Whiny William’s rant. Tom and I had actually come to the site this morning with some tasks of our own that we’d meant to accomplish. We needed to take measurements of a bridge at the north end of the road, as the military had requested that we figure out its load bearing ratio. We’d sent two different colleagues to measure this bridge in the past week, and both had come back with numbers that didn’t add up. Our turn. More importantly (to us), we needed Whiny William’s crews to drill some core samples at the south end of the road, and to collect some MSR samples from the north end of the road (it’s not important to know what this means, so I won’t bore you with an explanation). We’d intended to collect the samples, then give them to the bitumen delivery truck drivers for transport back to Kuwait. One of our colleagues in Kuwait would collect them from the bitumen truck drivers and run them over to an independent lab for testing.

By now it was about 1pm. In order for us to get back to base (home) before dark, which is mandatory, we would have to leave the site by 3:30pm. The drive down south to get the core samples would take about one hour each way (not including drilling the samples), and the drive up north to get the MSR samples would take about half an hour each way (not including collecting the sample material). We would have to be back at the asphalt plant with samples in time to get them onto the bitumen trucks for transport back to Kuwait, and the bitumen truck drivers weren’t going to wait around for them. They would leave as soon as their tanks were unloaded. They estimated that they’d be finished off-loading by 2:30 – 3:00pm.

Obviously we could only take one sample or the other and still get back in time to load them onto the bitumen trucks before they left to return to Kuwait, and we could only take one sample or the other and still get ourselves on the road home soon enough that we would arrive in camp before dark. We decided to take the MSR samples from up north, and try to squeeze in measuring the bridge up there as well, before driving back down to drop the samples with the bitumen trucks, which should have been ready to leave at about the same time we returned.

However, in keeping with the spirit of the day, the Road Contractor engineers who would drill and/or dig the samples for us had already spent over an hour rounding up the truck, generator, drill and all accessories to take us south to get the core samples. They told us that it would take them at least an hour to gather and ready the proper equipment if we preferred to go after the MSR samples.

We shrugged and went south to take the core samples.

Driving south on the road that is this road project, we made an unhappy discovery. Two areas of the road had recently been flooded.

Yes, flooded – in a desert that receives less than two inches of rain each year. Dried curly mud covered the road surface. How can someone build a road that can’t handle two inches of runoff per year? (Welcome to my world.) We marked those points as deficiencies which the contractor will (obviously) be told to go back and correct (fat chance).

When we reached a point about 2km from the Kuwaiti border, we chose an asphalt joint that we liked (i.e. didn’t like – all the joints are garbage). A joint is the point where paving ended for the day and began the next day. Taking a core sample at a joint, we reasoned, should give us information not only about whether the asphalt mix is good, but also whether the joints are sound. We indicated to the engineers, who speak no English, that we wanted a sample taken from that joint with the joint itself running right through the middle of the core.

The contractor’s core drill was a creative marriage of an asphalt drill bit run off a Black & Decker wood drill. The wood drill mechanism had been removed so it could be jury-rigged to the asphalt drill. The bit was cooled by water poured into a cut-off plastic soda pop bottle (!) that fed into a hose (we used my knife to cut the right length of hose…) that then feeds into the top of the drill bit. Nothing but the best on this project. (You should see their lab back at camp … or not.)

Two men drilled the first core for us using this unique contraption while we took photographs for the record (and for our own amusement). Ten minutes later when they pulled the bit and extracted the core … the core fell apart in four pieces. It fell apart on the joint, and it fell apart in two layers, the road in that area having been laid in one 5cm layer or ‘lift,’ with a 4cm layer or lift over that. No, it’s not supposed to do that! Anyway, that’s what Tom says – what do I know about asphalt? (Answer: 1. more every day; 2. more than I ever wanted to know.) When one lift is laid atop another, the bottom layer is supposed to first be sprayed with hot bitumen, gluing the two lifts into one. And before laying fresh asphalt against yesterday’s end point of asphalt, the joint is supposed to be sprayed with hot bitumen to seal the joint. (Sigh)

We moved on to the next core location, about 8m to the north of the first. The engineers set up the drill and water feed and began to drill. Almost immediately little flames started licking out the slits in the side of the drill body. The Black & Decker drill motor was on fire.

Tom and I looked at each other blankly. We both turned and stared out at the desert for a few minutes trying not to laugh.

When we were sure we could keep a straight face, we turned around and thanked the drillers, climbed back into the Land Cruiser with our one ‘core’ of four chunks and a million little bits of asphalt from the first joint, and drove north back to the contractor camp where we found Whiny William, still whining and tearing out his hair in the office, although …

The Bedu truckers had gone back to work without a raise in pay (though probably with some nefarious inducement from Captain Gotti that I don’t ever want to hear about), the gravel trucks were unloading gravel (that we’d paid the contractor for months ago), five of the bitumen tanks were being cut from their beds and off loaded from the flatbeds (without dropping them), the asphalt plant computer had been fixed (loose connection in the back of it, which we all know someone did on purpose, but – who could prove it? what does it matter?), the power was back up at camp (Captain Gotti again), and the second best engineer had returned from [-] City.

All was well in the camp, though Whiny William was still ranting about something – probably us. I let Tom talk to him while I petted the puppy.

We then handed the “core” to the Head Driver of the bitumen tanker trucks and made our escape.

This day can stand as an example of why I rarely go into detailed descriptions of problems routinely encountered on contracts, only mentioning things in a general way in letters and emails. Although this project is far more slop-ridden than most, every project has snafus that require quick creative problem solving on a daily basis. The issues tend to be involved, so absurdly tangled and multi-faceted that an explanation would require a good bit of background detail that often carries its own technical intricacies and extended histories. To describe them each would require, in order for an audience to understand, explaining details that I fear would quickly bore the average reader. I’ve started to describe days like this in the past, then simply given up, erasing the email to start over with something less involved. Perhaps I underestimate the reader for my own convenience.

*The word Bedu means inhabitant of the desert. Bedu is actually the plural form of the word, although Bedu can also be used as a plural. In Iraq I only heard them referred to as Bedu, by Iraqis, Brits and by the Bedu themselves.

This project should not be taken as a typical reconstruction project in Iraq. Although every Construction Representative that I knew had one or two projects that were as messed up as this one, the vast majority of my projects went far more smoothly and were appreciated by the average Iraqi. Of my twenty-some Iraqi construction companies working on contracts that I administered, this was the only contractor that was negligent and near (if not) criminal. The reconstruction efforts have received a lot of bad press, much of it deserved, but in journalists hunger for the bang-bang stories of fraud and corruption in disastrous big projects, they neglected the well-run small projects. Those never got the attention that they deserve. After almost a year and a half working Iraqi Reconstruction efforts, my conclusion is that the small projects being built by Iraqi contractors – schools, health centers, water treatment plants – were generally on schedule, reasonably priced, successful projects. I can only speak for southern Iraq, though … who knows what went on elsewhere.


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