Want to help keep an island school from flooding?

April 19th, 2018 § 2 comments § permalink

In this post I am sending out the bat signal to any of my stormwater management friends to help a school stop flooding!

In brief, and I will explain more as we go, we became connected (by fishing and messing around in boats) with some of the kids on Alitupu, in the Robeson community in Guna Yala (Panama). We visited their school and learned from their bilingual(Spanish/Guna) director, Nelicia, that they have severe classroom flooding when it rains, and also some high tide flooding under certain conditions.

The community has many riches, but cold hard cash is not one of them, so buying additional building materials and transporting them out to the island is the main barrier we can remove. Rainwater harvesting is a common practice in this island, and  households will line up tubs under the edges of roofs. Sometimes you see fabric draped over the top of the tubs as a filter/lid.

I see three teams! In the comments please identify yourself as a possible member of a team if you want to get future communiques on the following team tasks:
1. TEAM RETROFIT: Do you have expertise that you can share with designing and implementing a low-cost, durable, and possibly repeatable, retrofit for this school? Can you collaborate w me remotely?
2. TEAM MONEYBAGS: Do you have a network that might contribute to help fund the retrofit (materials, labor and transportation) which would occur as a minga-type group building day? If I made a transparent appeal for funds, would you share it with your network?
3. TEAM FETCH : Finally, are you in Panama, with access to a big truck and/or boat? Can we take it to Portobelo to the tank store there? We will need to transport the stuff into Golfo de San Blas either via boat or via Chepo-Cartí (carro-lancha).

If you answered TEAM RETROFIT, come along right away on a photo tour of the site…

ALITUPU - 1 of 18

Schools in Panama are blue and white… here is the view of the school from where we anchored. Looking from S to N. Homes are thatched or some mix of thatch and metal roof. The school is cinder block w a metal roof on a frame. For future orientation, remember that the separate boxy structure on the left of the school complex is the bathroom.

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Approaching the school from the path coming from the town dock. Communal building on the left, private home on the right.

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This is the front of the school – four classrooms, each with a door opening to this portico. In this view the waterfront is on the right side of the building. Sheet flow from this roof is severe, and the flooding occurs from the portico into the classrooms.

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Looking S, you can see they have dug a little canal trying to divert the water down to the waterfront.

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Inside the portico, note the canal and sediment on the blue wall.

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Detail of roof frame. At one point there was a gutter but it came apart.  Wood is still very solid to anchor some new, very durable, gutter.

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Toward the waterfront, a complex of homes contribute runoff, and this is the main source of the flooding.  The classroom at this end is impacted first and most severely. The director indicated ankle-deep water was a regular occurrence in the wet season.

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Bathrooms down at the waterfront, also you can see the path of the canal down along side the thatched home. During certain tide and wind conditions, this canal can also bring salt water up into the mix.

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From the waterfront end of the school, looking back.  You can see how tight are the homes and how deep the little canal gets at this end of the portico.

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This household does harvest rainwater from this area – note the tub there. During wet season there would be several lined up, I assume.

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Looking back “up” the canal, I think my recommendation here is a long trench drain with some prepared gravel under. This is very well draining, sandy (its a coral atoll for goodness sake) soil. Other more creative ideas?

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Another look under the portico, its a nice hangout. The woman figured here is Nelicia, the director of the school. You may be thinking where are the people.  There were people around me while I was taking these, but it is courteous to not photograph people here, esp in more traditional areas. So image the little dance going on as I move around the site!

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There it is. The bathroom directly over the water. Deal with it.

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Next to the bathroom is these piles for a future school expansion. So at some point the waterfront end of the school will be built out, but when is anyone’s guess.

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The waterfront end, now looking toward the back of the school, toward the neighboring pig pen! In this open space, there could be a rainwater tank that is elevated or not, collecting water from the roof that is diverted w a gutter.  This is just my early idea. Additional fresh water near the bathrooms for washing or just detention. But the possible future expansion will change this layout if it ever came…

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A look behind the school. Note the debris is littoral, flotsam from the sea and wind. Some amount of this is refuse from the island, and islands often create areas of landfill (the pig nearby is a clue) that languish a bit and then are purposefully filled and lived on. There has been some study about how some inhabited islands have grown their landmass despite the larger plan for Gunas towns to relocate to their mainland in response to sea level rise. So there’s solid waste management, climate adaptation, and terraforming all embodied in this rubbly side lot.

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This is the “interior” side of the school, facing into a grassy square where kids play etc. Note portico on right for orientation.

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This is looking from the interior, down the back of the building toward that rubbly lot and out to the waterfront.  The director says they don’t get flooding into these houses. Note the little store window (closed for holiday) in the thatched wall to the left.  Normally you can go there and buy tienda things.

Next, I will translate this page to share with the director and the students. If you speak any Spanish feel free to use it in the comments too! I have measurements and will draw up a few views. Comment if you want to stay looped in!


night plankton

March 31st, 2018 § 0 comments § permalink

Some play video from a bucket of night plankton in the Golfo de San Blas:

up and over

March 29th, 2018 § 5 comments § permalink

There is traveling and then there is pilgrimage. I just wanted to write something down in this moment before the whole feeling escapes me. It is a combination of physical exertion, mental openness, and receiving coincidence after coincidence.

The night before last, my husband and I were sitting on the edge of a termite-infested bench in the tropical highlands at the frontier between the comarca Guna Yala and the valley of Mamoní. Surrounded by our wet socks, bandanas, and muddy boots, the sounds of howler monkeys and every type of frog, bird and insect singing, we spoke to each other quietly, and had the type of conversation that you have when the everyday scales of resentment, irritation, bookkeeping etc. have fallen away. To get into that mindset, we went on and up-and-over pilgrimage.


Our new machete.

Since we have been anchored near the mouth of Rio Mandinga, we have started making trips up on tierra firme, knowing the pueblos there and slowly building relationships as we went. It is an area that has a past of thwarted exploitation by extranjeros, first by the early banana industry, a company that preceded the now-global giant Dole. Then came the tourism-minded gringos of the mid 20th century: the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Today, in this region there are no more bananeros, and no more foreign-built hotels. The two local airstrips no longer have set service, a sharp contrast to past times when there were regular commercial flights to Porvenir and US Army use at Mandinga. Its an area subject to countless schemes and incursions, which have been held at bay by the iterative and adaptable Guna congreso.


Congreso house for the Mandi Yala pueblo.

Way back when, this route was considered the first choice for what would ultimately become the Panama Canal, but the Gunas, back when they were Cunas, had scuttled that plan post haste.So when we went out by foot, up the river and over the continental divide and down the “other side”, we did so step-by-step, requesting permiso for every leg of the journey. The trail became not just a series of steps, but a continuum of relationships.


Coconut water to-go.


Critters and communities along the path.

In my mind I was having a running conversation with my family and friends, which happens out on the boat as well. I even sent a mental thank you note to my high school cross country coach, for instilling in us the mantra of mental toughness. He smoked his pipe as we ran through the woods, shouting after us, “running is 99% mental toughness!”


Leaf litter.

Today I have work projects that need my full attention, I have laundry to fold, and all these workaday things – like applying aspercreme to my tender knees – have a a renewed purpose and shine. Maybe its just endorphins, but it feels like everything fits.

Tonight I meet up with my “first friend” in Panama, Mara – the one who taught me how to make ceviche on a sailboat. We are going to take her mom out for the start of Holy Week processions. This morning she told me she was surprised I was interested in going, because “gringas are usually Lutheran, no?”. Denominations aside, I am just glad to be in the fold, and to keep moving forward.


One of many rivers and creeks to cross.