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Hole In Puerto Rico's Historic Fort Remains Unfixed


8 January 2005
Copyright © 2005
THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Along a winding street and up a steep hill by the sea's edge, a gaping hole mars the defensive wall that Spaniards began building in 1539 to protect this former colonial-era city.

The gap in the bulwark popularly known here simply as La Muralla -- the wall -- has been there for nearly 11 months, despite promises by the island's government that repairs would begin immediately.

La Muralla encircles nearly all of Old San Juan, the citadel that once served as the heart of a fortress system designed to protect Spain's colonial holdings in the Americas. Today, its narrow cobblestoned streets and colonial buildings, plus museums, shops, restaurants and art galleries, are magnets for tens of thousands of tourists.

The wall stretches for about three miles and connects two forts -- El Morro and the 27-acre San Cristóbal, the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World. About 97 percent of La Muralla remains intact. The rest was demolished in the late 1800s to make room for urban development.

''We're talking about 500 years of history,'' said Félix López, a historian with the U.S. National Park Service, the agency responsible for the site. ``In no other place in the nation are you going to find this. It's the most important fortification system in the Americas.''

About 70 feet of wall collapsed on Feb. 7, just after several school buses and trucks had rumbled through the congested area. The Department of Transportation in this U.S. commonwealth determined that constant vibration from heavy traffic on the road adjacent to the damaged portion of the wall was probably to blame.

Emergency funds totaling $500,000 already have been allocated by the park service to patch up the hole. But another $3.5 million worth of work promised by the Puerto Rican government for the installation of pilings to support the road has not begun.

''The commonwealth offered to step in and fund that and, through the Department of Transportation, obtain a contractor who could come in and do the work,'' said Walter Chávez, park superintendent. ``We're still waiting.''

The February collapse has raised concern that one of the oldest European-style fortifications on U.S. soil is at risk. The Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine also served as an outpost of the Spanish Empire, but that structure is not as massive as the one in San Juan.

''We're very concerned, especially because engineers found that the vibrations were the cause, not natural erosion,'' Chávez said. ``There are several areas along the wall that are in danger.''

José Martínez Laboy, who is in charge of infrastructure at the Puerto Rican governor's office, said the delay on the installation of pilings was due to a busy holiday season and hesitation to reroute traffic.

''Because of all the festivities and a desire not to impact the tourism sector, it was decided not to begin work at this time,'' Martínez said in a telephone interview last week. ``But the funds have been allocated and the commitment is there.''

''We are finalizing negotiations with the contractor,'' he said.

Martínez said the road work is now expected to begin in mid-January and due for completion in the spring.

Then comes the tedious job of patching up the hole in La Muralla and restoring it to its original state, a process that will take another two years.

Edwin Colón, who is in charge of maintenance for the park service, has been experimenting with a variety of materials over the past decade to duplicate the work done by the Spaniards when they built the wall with the help of prisoners and slaves.

''We try to get as close as possible to the original material,'' Colón said, adding that the wall is a compilation of sand, stone, lime and brick.

The wall is up to 25 feet thick in some areas, rising more than 140 feet above the sea at El Morro and more than 150 feet at San Cristóbal, which hugs the Atlantic shoreline. The structure survived at least five battles between 1595 and 1898.

''This has been a wake-up call,'' said López, the historian. ``We've always been concerned about a possible collapse but never imagined it would occur.

''Natural erosion is always bound to happen,'' he said. ``Now, obviously, we know that the worst impact is caused by us, human beings.''

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