When Ilya Espino de Marotta lifted off in a helicopter to survey her $5.2 billion project, her legs turned to jelly. That’s because this marine engineer, whose day job often has her evaluating very, very big things from very, very high concrete platforms, is “petrified” of heights. The flight also served to document one of the most momentous builds in history: a nine-year expansion project, completed in 2016, that added a third lane to the 100-year-old Panama Canal.
De Marotta, executive vice president of engineering at the Panama Canal Authority, was the chief engineer overseeing the expansion project. As a top exec in a 10,000-person organization that includes just 1,200 women, she’s seen as a trailblazer in an industry dominated by men — in a region known for its machismo culture. After being on the four-person team that drafted the initial designs, de Marotta was tasked with managing the multiple companies hired to complete the work; helping to resolve issues of leaking locks, striking workers and squabbling contractors; and serving as the public face of a project that required a national referendum for approval and semi-annual televised updates to Congress. “My motto for this project was ‘never a dull moment,’” the 55-year-old says.
An original part of the Panama Canal, from above.
The project involved building a third set of locks to increase the capacity of the current two-lane canal, already one of the busiest waterways in the world, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The new locks can accommodate much larger ships, capable of transporting almost three times as much cargo as the previous limit. Which means much more money can flow through the gates — the first ship to pass through the expanded locks was charged around $600,000 — bringing billions to Panama in the coming decades. When then president Martín Torrijos announced the project in 2006, he declared that Panama — already Central America’s wealthiest, most developed nation — would be catapulted to “First World” status.
It was, says de Marotta, “definitely the most ambitious project” the country has seen since the U.S. led the initial construction of the canal in 1914. From an engineering perspective, the key challenge was environmental: For each ship to pass through the old locks, 55 million gallons of fresh water were required, drawn from a reservoir that also supplies drinking water to Panama City, explains Carlos Vargas, the Panama Canal Authority’s executive vice president of environment, water and energy. While it would’ve been easier to build a new reservoir, de Marotta’s team of engineers instead deepened the existing lake and installed innovative water-saving basins alongside each lock, conserving three-fifths of the water during each transit, so that the new locks use slightly less water despite being much larger.
De Marotta defends the cost overruns as “not significant at all when you look at other megaprojects of this size.”
A Panama native, de Marotta fell in love with the ocean as a child, thanks to her grandparents’ seaside home and the films of Jacques Cousteau. An academic highflier, she started college in the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship and then graduated a year early. She’d dreamed of becoming a marine biologist but settled on design engineering in the canal’s shipyard, steadily climbing the ranks over a 32-year career. With no women above her in the company, “she was the pioneer” for female engineers, says Min Chen, former chair of a Panamanian women-in-engineering trade group.
Of course, not everything in the project went according to plan. In 2015, videos of water gushing from a crack in the concrete were shared online, prompting international headlines, and work was interrupted by strikes over pay. And from the start, critics argued that the Panama Canal Authority had awarded the contract at a rock-bottom price that called into question the long-term safety of the build. Ultimately, the third set of locks finally opened, 18 months behind schedule and, due to an ongoing claims resolution process, currently clocking in at $250 million over budget. De Marotta defends the cost overruns as “not significant at all when you look at other megaprojects of this size.”
Indeed, some of the setbacks were blown “way out of proportion,” argues Frank C. Townsend, professor emeritus of civil engineering at the University of Florida, particularly when compared to the original U.S.-led build at the start of the 20th century. Striking workers is certainly a better problem than 5,500 dead workers.
Many credit de Marotta’s leadership for steering the project around obstacles. She has “soft skills that are sometimes missing in this engineering world,” says Karen Smits, whose Ph.D. thesis examined cross-cultural collaboration in the canal expansion, which featured an American project management firm and a consortium of Belgian, Spanish, Italian and Panamanian construction companies.
For her part, de Marotta believes her gender was a key factor: Women “will solve things differently,” she says. “We’re probably a bit better at putting ourselves in other people’s shoes.” Although she says she hasn’t faced much explicit gender discrimination in her career, she understands that her name was submitted to the canal’s all-male board of directors several times before she got the nod, amid concerns she could balance family and work.
And the mother of three admits that balance was tough at times: In 2011, her 17-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer; three months later, her husband, whom she met in the canal shipyard, received the same diagnosis. She moved to New York for a year while they received treatment, visiting the project one week each month. Fellow canal employees gave the couple a collective 1,300 hours of their vacation time — “we received a paycheck every single month they were in treatment. That was mind-blowing,” de Marotta says.
“After what I went through with my son and my husband,” she says, everything else that life could throw at her was “nothing.” She’s a scuba diver, a photographer and a former marathon runner, so it’s easy to see why some view de Marotta as a superwoman — except, of course, she won’t be leaping off any tall buildings.
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