Havana’s sea wall was struck with the fury of Hurricane Irma on September 9, 2017. Ten meter high waves flooded municipalities on the coastline of Cuba’s capital, penetrating as far as two kilometers inland.
Residents who live close to the Malecón had never seen anything like it, not even during the Storm of the Century, in March 1993, or Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Such meteorological events and their impact are clear proof of the need to take steps in order to control, to the extent possible, the negative effects on the area.
A study of the location of human settlements affected by climate change in Cuba revealed that the greatest number of houses and infrastructure impacted are located near the capital’s sea wall.
As such, the zone features among 11 prioritized areas within Tarea Vida (Project Life), the state plan to combat climate change, approved on April 25, 2017 by the Council of Ministers.
First of all we try to identify, through research and studies, the zone’s level of protection against storm surges, flooding and sea water penetration in storm drains which open into the sea, explained Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Otero, head of the Urban Planning Institute’s (IPF) Investigation and Development department.
But why does this area flood so much? The answer, according to experts, can be explained by a combination of factors, including the physical-geographic location of the Malecon, the specific climactic conditions which produce large swells and storm surges.
What is more, urban development has also taken over areas where watersheds - which act as a natural drainage system – were located; to which must be added a lack of maintenance, noted Rodríguez Otero.
Thanks to joint efforts by the government and Party authorities in the province, around 60 families were evacuated from the area before Hurricane Irma struck, stated María Isabel Martínez Oliver, head of Malecón and Outlying Area Investments at the Havana City Historian’s Office (OHC).
Today, buildings where irreversible structural damage had already been identified and which continued to suffer partial collapses due to storm surges, up to a month after the hurricane hit, have been closed for the public’s own safety and to prevent accidents; while the government and OHC have built homes in different municipalities in the capital to re-house those affected.
Given the admirable urban design and aesthetic qualities of Havana’s coastline, the deterioration of its housing stock, new regulations to mitigate and/or adapt to climate change and the need to incorporate these aspect into new investment projects, the OHC has drawn up a series of actions to be undertaken in the zone, including the construction of new homes subject to specific urban development regulations and the restoration of other buildings; as well as the constant maintenance of buildings whose facades and communal areas are in a good or acceptable state.
Meanwhile, resolving problems linked to drainage systems in areas prone to flooding in the municipalities of La Habana Vieja, Centro Habana and Plaza de la Revolución, and developing measures to fix and facilitate the upkeep of these systems is also a top priority for Central State Administration Bodies.
Also proposed is raising the height of the wall to a maximum of 1.25 meters above the level of the pavement, with reinforcement and curvature applied to the structure’s outer façade directly facing the sea; reinforcing pavements with concrete to prevent seawater penetration and constructing breakwaters at a safe distance from the coast to act as a buffer against storm surges, explained Juan José Díaz Espíldoro, investments specialist at the OHC.
None the less, he noted that such modifications must not affect the image of the city, as the urban and architectural qualities of these municipalities must be preserved.
New buildings scheduled to be constructed along Havana’s coastline were obliged to undergo a study before micro-zoning and construction licenses could be issued, while every proposal underwent the established planning and assessment processes with all relevant organizations involved, noted Rodríguez Otero.
In addition, join work commissions have been created to draw up strategies to extend the works undertaken in the Malecón area along the rest of the capital’s coastline, which according to Eymil Galvez Leyva OHC investment specialist, will also include measures to repair and strengthen the wall’s foundations.
As such, Central State Administration Bodies in the capital, overseen by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, are participating in the search for solutions to save and protect Havana’s sea wall.
Of course this process will require time and resources, and must factor in the understanding that it is not enough to simply implement solutions, but that these solutions must be perfected and studied in light of the specific characteristics of each sections of the wall. Only this way will it be possible to prevent the streets of Havana from being mistaken for a further expanse of sea.
URBAN PLANNING REGULATIONS FOR THE MALECON AREA
- New buildings must be constructed with weather-resistant materials.
- Fifteen percent of plots must be left undeveloped and buildings must remain in keeping with the city’s traditional landscape, except in certain areas where the construction of taller buildings is permitted.
- Ground level spaces must only be used for commercial and service purposes and not as living quarters, while basements can only be used for parking.
- The floor level in entrance ways must be raised to between 15 and 45 centimeters above the level of the pavement and to 1.20 meters inside buildings.
- The original design of buildings must be preserved, in particular the shape and size of blocks, plots, and sidewalks.