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Associated Press

Walls Of Puerto Rico's Colonial Capital Crumbling Due To Traffic And Vibrations, U.S. Park Service Working To Save Them

Associated Press Writer

October 28, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) - For centuries, San Juan's fortified stone walls have withstood the assaults of waves and cannonballs, but it's the vibrations of traffic and the weight of heavy tourist buses that have caused parts of the walls to crumble.

Now the U.S. National Park Service, which administers the El Morro fort and its adjoining walls, is scrambling to save the historic ramparts by redirecting traffic away from a fragile section and reinforcing the road to prevent vibrations.

The need for action was made clear Feb. 27 when a 70-foot-long (20- meter-long) section of the 20-foot-high (six-meter-high) wall collapsed between El Morro and its sister fort San Cristobal.

The road running along the ramparts was unharmed, and no one was injured in the poor seaside neighborhood of La Perla where the wall fell on a grassy ledge facing the Atlantic.

The collapse on the edge of Old San Juan spurred prompt action, as the U.S. territory's government allowed the Park Service to send traffic on a detour around the spot and turn Norzagaray Street into a one-way street.

El Morro is a symbol of Puerto Rico, its seaside "garitas" -- or sentry boxes -- gracing tourist brochures and the Caribbean island's license plates.

Construction of El Morro, meaning headland, began in the 1540s and work on the walls continued sporadically over centuries -- leaving 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) in all surrounding the island's capital.

The section that collapsed was built in the late 1700s. It was among the most recently built.

Historians say the sloping walls, which at the base vary in width from 20 feet (6 meters) to 40 feet (12 meters), have been bombarded five times. One bombardment came from the Dutch navy in 1625, and three times the English attacked, forcing the El Morro garrison to briefly surrender in 1598.

A final bombardment came in 1898, when U.S. troops seized the island from Spain. A U.S. navy shell struck El Morro and is still on exhibit. The impact of golf balls hit by occupying U.S. soldiers can still be seen on the sandstone.

The walls were built with an interior section of rubble and earth to absorb the force of cannonballs. Even in 1797, under the attack of 17 English ships and 2,000 men, the walls did not fall down.

But some wall sections, undercut by pounding waves, collapsed in 1912, 1930, and 1940. Breakwaters now protect those parts from erosion, said Walter Chavez, the park superintendent.

"The walls are in pretty good shape, although they require constant maintenance. But the modern world is more dangerous than nature," Chavez said.

Signs now say heavy vehicles are prohibited along the seaside street, but the law has not been enforced. Tourist buses still follow delivery trucks up to San Cristobal fort and along the wall, with a striking view of El Morro in the distance above the sea.

The street was built six decades ago, well before traffic jams became a common occurrence on the island of 4 million people.

The U.S. Department of Transportation came up with a plan to save the wall. The street's asphalt will be stripped, and reinforced concrete pilings will be driven into the roadbed. They are intended to dissipate the traffic vibrations and prevent the subsoil from spreading out under the weight of the vehicles.

The National Park Service has already set aside US$433,000 to restore the walls, but the roadwork has to come before the restoration. That US$3.5 million federal project is awaiting formal approval by the next Puerto Rican governor, who will be determined in elections Tuesday.

In the meantime, Park Service officials are buying sandstone blocks and relearning centuries-old skills to prepare to rebuild and refurbish the walls, which along with the fortresses are classified as a U.N. World Heritage Site.

Park Service maintenance chief Edwin Colon said the walls' original stucco also has been lost to weather and he is developing plans to reapply it -- returning a creamy color to walls that are now sooty black. "What people see today is not what people saw," he said.

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