Want to help keep an island school from flooding?

April 19th, 2018 § 4 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 Ailitupu, 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:


March 25th, 2018 § 5 comments § permalink

When we first arrived in the Robeson group of islands, we soon were visited by curious kids out on their canoes, messing around on the final days of their summer. Kids as young as 5 or 6, out in a tippy dugout with an even younger sibling operating the bailer, would cruise by, hollering a few words of Spanish and laughing at everything weird about us and our boat. My call out ,“Chao, bacalao!” still gets a big laugh, and I am suspecting that some day I will learn its some naughty phrase in the Guna language.

Ultimately, the bravest of the girls asked/declared, “SUBIR.” And after a smile from me, subir she did, clamoring up from her ulu and pulling up kid after kid after her, finishing with young Mirian, a toddler no more than 2. After those first pioneers, we had Guna kids tumbling around our boat every afternoon, like clockwork.

Fabio ran a fishing clinic, where we provided hand lines and a bucket and just watched the older boys jig fish after fish after fish. Down below, I deployed a bag of colored pencils and markers, and subdivided notebook paper into mini canvases. As the sun set, we would hang up the drawings on the lifelines, divvy up the fish, and enjoy our magic hour speaking gobbledygook with other people’s babies.

At first, we were wondering, is this ok? Gringo-Guna relations have a long and checkered past, resulting in the conservative approach practiced today by all. Yet here we were running an unlicensed summer camp for half the island. We knew that the whole operation was being lightly monitored via tiny whoops and whistles sent back and forth with home. So we rowed close to shore and waved and greeted and smiled. We figured out who went with who, and met the parents. And so for about a month, that was our job.

But our daycare was not built to last. One evening at the congreso, the topic of “Should the Kids Subir” came up. Guna government is a constant, iterative conversation. In the evening, the community meets in the special hall built for that purpose, the leaders sing and discuss the news of the day, and here decisions are made. It was decided that kids on boats could end badly – an injured kid or an injured boat. They sent word via our go-to-guy Justino, who intimated they do not want debts with sailboat people. Hecho.

It was sort of a relief that the rules were crafted to meet the situation, and that Guna government is instantaneous in its implementation. We were becoming a popular destination and were getting worried about carrying capacity. Now, with our pals forbidden to subir, we wave at each other from a polite distance, shout “Chao bacalao!” and are still consumed in peals of laughter.

Now school is back in session, and we have visited the pals in the classroom. We got dressed up school colors and helped them with their English vocabulary list. When we left that day, the girls who run the tienda by the dock asked to take selfies with us in our finery.

This is getting long, and I am nowhere nearer the point. The deeper thought I have about our life here, is that we in a massive retraining on just how to be on someone else’s turf, where the boundaries are and how permeable human relations can be even in the most structured setting.

We were not privy to the larger discussion about kids on the boat. That conversation most likely tied back to previous experiences with extranjeros that left damage. It is also likely that we, just by being who we are, have the potential to cause damage as well. I catch in myself a colonist mentality – what would I do with this piece of land, the port could work like this, the airstrip like that… As a not just a gringa but also a planner, I am double danger. My mental map is always switched on, and it can get in the way of kindness if I am mentally planting flags all the time.

I have become very inhibited about photographing, or holding a camera at all. I don’t photograph crowds or people I don’t know well. Looking back, how many photos have I taken of strangers in NYC or some plaza in Italy? Now, here, it feels like cultural theft.

What I have to remind myself, and what has finally become a source of relief is that “this is not FOR you.” I just happen to be here. The boat makes it more possible to be here with minimal economic disturbance, because we can live quite independently. We barter for most things, and contribute to the town coffers by using the public lancha every so often. Although gender is fluid here, work is super gendered, so Fabio goes off to fix solar panels while I coo over embroidered molas and occasionally add one to my stash. We try our best to add some value.

Which leads me to a simple idea that was actually Fabio’s. He asked the director of the school what she needed, then stopped talking and listened. We were standing at her house on one end of the island and it was a chicha party starting that day. Chicha Fuerte is a  moonshine  that gets made in a special hut for that purpose, and once its ready, everyone gets super lit. Its a special occasion! Big dishes of candy, big dishes of suelto cigarettes, women dressed to the nines, the men bleary eyed and askew.

He said, hey we can do English class but what else do you or the school need? In response, she immediately beelined it through the early stage chicha party to the schoolhouse to show us the flooding they experience any time it rains, and where it comes in the classroom, and described how much worse it gets in the wet season, which is just about to begin.

Dear reader, do you know about me and stormwater? In short, I am a fan! If there was one thing I was expecting to hear, it was not stormwater. Yet there it was, clear as the erosion patterns under the eaves of the building and the high water sediment marks on all the walls.

So I went back today, just me this time, to survey the site with a camera and tape measure. An older lady in traditional dress dodged out of the frame when I warned her a photo was coming. As I studied the ground, a man still in chicha mode asked me carefully in Spanish, “So what are you thinking?” as if I were a doctor making a diagnosis.

“I’m thinking we need to keep the classroom from flooding!” I said. He enthusiastically agreed.

Back by the dock I stopped in the tienda to buy loose eggs at room temperature. You can just say how many you want! The shop attendant showed me the selfies she took with us when we were dressed up and we swapped numbers to share the photos. I carefully put the open package of eggs in the dinghy and rowed back along the shore, waving to pals and pals’ moms, boys jigging on docks, and other folks in tiny boats.

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