Time Is Short and the Water May Rise

The proposed construction along the San Francisco River would lay the foundation to protect Panajachel from flooding

The proposed construction along the San Francisco River would lay the foundation to protect Panajachel from flooding

Can Panajachel gird up in time for the next flooding?

From space, Panajachel resembles a fan on a long, broken rod. This fan abuts Central America’s deepest waters—Lake Atitlán. It looks as though the city, in mortal fear of the lake, wants to escape up the skinny gorge that forms the broken rod.

In fact, the lake is the most benign of Panajachel’s waters. But any hurricane within a thousand clicks will stir up enough water to pummel Panajachel from three other directions: the gorge runoff, the bank-jumping San Francisco River and the sky itself.

Flooding claimed property and peace of mind—and lives—during Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Hurricane Stan did the same in 2005, and a third watery whirlwind, Agatha, came in May 2010. The community was still rebuilding from Stan’s visit.

Yet, Panajachel remains Guatemala’s silver medalist, after La Antigua, in the race among Guatemalan towns to draw tourists. And Calle Santander remains Guatemala’s most famous thoroughfare, immortalized worldwide in guidebooks and memories.

“Still,” says longtime resident Dr. Richard Adams, “we can’t take a hit like this every five or so years.” The Michigan anthropologist and other community leaders are behind a proposal that would shield the city from what locals call “five-year flooding.”

Guatemalan Nuño Jiménez and North American Molly Molander are the plan’s architects. But they warn that, ambitious as it is, the proposal involves tradeoffs.

“More could be done,” Molander says, “but this proposal, if executed, will allow Panajachel to sleep through an orange alert the next time we get a Mitch, Stan or Agatha.” Nowadays, a few hours of continual rain is enough to send townfolk to the banks, standing under umbrellas as nervous sentinels.

The proposed construction would lay the foundation for additional defenses to protect Panajachel from flooding of red-alert magnitude, which is thought to come every 50 or so years. A flood of this strength struck Panajachel in 1949, enabling the river to change course and cut a new channel through inhabited areas. With sufficient rainfall, the river could again jump its final bend and slash through the middle of town. Some districts are relatively safe by dint of distance or elevation; but no part of Panajachel, all of which occupies an alluvial delta, is fully secure.

Molander explains that the construction would not only make Panajachel safer, but boost aesthetics and the quality of life. The city’s anarchic layout has, she says, “made traffic flow crazy.” The changes would add riverside promenades and bike paths where today there are rocky moraines and gravel beds, much of it barely manageable even on foot.

“Kids coming home from school have to dodge chicken buses and tuk-tuks,” Molander says. “The streets are more clogged every year.”

The promenades—flat rims atop levy-like structures called gaviones inclinados—would be strictly off limits to motorized vehicles. They would enclose a channel of nearly uniform breadth and permit the reclamation of much land that is today in a vado (wadi) formed during Stan and Agatha. Molander admits that residential and commercial development of the reclaimed zone should be avoided. But in this, she sees an opportunity.

“In a word, recreation. We could fill it with everything from picnic tables to volleyball, soccer and tetherball courts, with hitching posts for bikes. The people who own the land behind the gaviones could operate vending carts to provision visitors with drinks, bicycles, Frisbees, ball and roller skate rentals, whatever.

This would boost the town’s economy.” Molander thinks that a little league-scale baseball diamond might be feasible in the zone’s widest segment.

But what about the overall feasibility of gaviones inclinados in Panajachel? Is the benefit solely conceptual?
An encouraging precedent already exists in, of all places, Panajachel itself. The rugged Yellow Bridge at the north end of town, where the gorge narrows considerably, was built in 1942 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

It is the only crossing that survives every flooding. Yet, even it was threatened during Agatha.

Just above the Yellow Bridge, on ground where a neighborhood was swept away by Stan in 2005, Californians Sidney and Michael Eschenbach have built a community center that includes a retirement home and a theatrical venue. But it is shielded by an enormous gavion inclinado.

“The trick,” says Sid Eschenbach, “is to keep the sand in place. Eighty percent of what the river deposits is fine sand. The gaviones are ‘mattresses’ set atop geotextile, a material that lets excess water seep through while eliminating the removal of the sand.” The mattresses, lying at a slope of about 30 degrees, are placed over the geotextile on top of huge earthen berms.

Similar berms are being raised by the national government in the zone south of the bridge, but they are unprotected sand. The proposal favored by Jimenez, Molander and Dr. Adams would, in effect, extend the Eschenbachs’ private initiative.

“The work the government is doing right now is helpful,” Eschenbach says, “but how long will it take another five-year flood to chew up unprotected berms? They’re like walls of sugar.” They can, however, provide the perfect anchor for gaviones inclinadas.

To date, the other anti-flooding measure has been to line the channel with gaviones mallas, huge blocks made by filling chain-link crates with rocks. Some parts of the channel are still terraced with these. But Eschenbach favors gaviones inclinadas, because of the nature of the river itself.

“It’s not some mountain stream that cuts a deeper channel with each flood. It’s an alluvial river that goes through cycles of filling and jumping. Our recent experience has proved this much. Therefore, we must dredge the channel, and hem the river with structures that provide [graduated resistance] to its force, instead of something that will wash away.”

The Stan disaster, in particular, bears out Eschenbach’s warning. The San Francisco River, a meek, mossy tadpole hatchery for most of the year, grew into a maddening swell that dislodged and snapped some of the gaviones mallas like reeds. The exposed vertical banks were quickly undermined by erosion and liquifaction.

When Agatha came along five years later, spectators watched in real time as the river pulled up huge trees by their roots and swallowed houses.

The proposal would cost Q10.8 million, far cheaper than other solutions. No one believes that the municipal treasury can pay the entire price, but it is hoped that additional funding may come from the national government or a friendly foreign country. South Korea, which donated money for Panajachel’s other car crossing, the Friendship Bridge, is one candidate.

“The rains return in May,” Eschenbach notes. “We’ve got just enough time to get the protection in place. Otherwise, all we can do is hope that 2011 will not be another flood year.”

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