From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Aftershocks become fact of life for Salvadorans

Date 16 Feb 2001 13:50:12

Feb. 16, 2001  News media contact: Linda Bloom·(212)870-3803·New York

NOTE: Photographs and a related story, UMNS #083, are available with this

By Paul Jeffrey*

OZATLAN, USULATAN, El Salvador (UMNS) -- Waking suddenly in the predawn
darkness, Rosario de Jesus Pablo felt the strong aftershock jolt her
temporary home of wood scraps and plastic sheeting.

She grabbed her sleeping grandchildren and hurriedly pulled them outside,
where they huddled together in the bushes until the shaking subsided. In the
quiet that followed, they listened to landslides rumbling down the steep
slopes of the Usulatán Volcano that looms above their village.

When the sun finally began to light the sky, Pablo led her grandchildren
back to the shared mattress that serves as their bed, then lit a fire to
heat water for coffee. Clouds of dust from the landslides lingered on the
mountain for hours.

During the month since the Jan. 13 earthquake that ravaged this small
Central American country, more than 3,000 aftershocks have provided a
regular reminder to Salvadorans of the fear and anguish they experienced
during the 36 seconds when mountainsides collapsed on top of neighborhoods
and entire villages literally fell apart. The worst, at 6.6 on the Richter
scale, occurred on Feb. 13, killing more than 300 people.

The Feb. 7 aftershock that caused Pablo to pull her grandchildren from their
temporary shelter was designated 5.6 on the Richter scale, enough on its own
to knock down a wall or two. Yet here in the poor neighborhood of Nueva
Guadalupe, part of the municipality of Ozatlán, there is nothing sizable
left to knock down.

Residents have constructed temporary shelters of scrap lumber and plastic
sheeting, which tend to sway with the new tremors but remain standing.
Pablo's son Rigoberto, who with his wife and two children share her house,
said he didn't even get out of bed when the strong aftershock hit. "The
plastic and wood don't weigh a lot, so if they fall on me it won't hurt
much," he said.
Such nonchalance isn't shared by everyone. Fear lingers in many long after
the ground finishes its periodic shaking. Rigoberto's 4-year-old daughter
Sandra, unschooled in adult bravado, starts to cry when a strong wind
rattles their temporary home. "She's afraid it's another earthquake, that
her house is going to come crashing down again," her grandmother explained.

What crashed down on Jan. 13 was a house built of adobe -- blocks of dried
mud and straw that rural residents stack up to provide shelter from the
scorching sun. When the January quake knocked down those walls, the dried
adobe broke into a fine dust that swirls up from the ground with every
whisper of wind. Everyone is coughing these days.

And most are trying to figure out how to replace their simple homes. This is
a poor region in a poor country. Although many families like Pablo's possess
small plots of land that they received under the country's U.S.-sponsored
agrarian reform, that reform was designed primarily to keep peasants from
supporting leftist guerrillas during the 1980s. There has been no
agricultural credit or technical assistance, and today families like Pablo's
manage to produce meager crops of corn and beans that barely keep them

What capital they've managed to accumulate over the years was invested in
their simple homes. When their adobe walls disintegrated in January, so did
their life's savings.

That facet of the tragedy is more difficult to see than the well-televised
drama lived by residents of the Las Colinas neighborhood of Santa Tecla,
where a hillside collapsed on more than 600 middle-class homes. More than
half the January death toll from the quake came from that one neighborhood,
just a few minutes from the capital.

No camera crews have shown up in Nueva Guadalupe, perhaps because no one
died here. Since the quake started off with relatively gentle movements,
many who would otherwise have been trapped in collapsing buildings were able
to run outside to safety.

But many worry that the tragedy in rural villages like this will remain
largely invisible. The country's culture, politics, and economics have long
been centered in the capital. 

"It's very easy to forget the rest of the country exists, because of the
historic marginalization of the countryside," said Rudelmar Bueno de Faria,
the local representative for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

"Yet the biggest number of quake victims are in the countryside," he
continued. "The houses collapsed, and there is no water. The people are
living under the trees. Some rural villages look like a bomb was dropped on
them, but the international press hasn't discovered them yet. What the press
has shown is just Las Colinas."

After an initial response that was confused and often bungling, the central
government handed principal relief tasks over to local mayors. Although the
76 families in Nueva Guadalupe have received little attention from their
local mayor, Jose Rosano, a delegation of Lutherans from neighboring
Nicaragua brought plastic sheeting and medical care one day. A student group
twice came to play games with the children, helping them recover from the
trauma of the quake. And food supplies, such as corn, beans, rice and
cooking oil were delivered by regional staff of the LWF, one of several
organizations belonging to Action by Churches Together (ACT), an
international alliance of church-based emergency relief agencies. The United
Methodist Committee on Relief is another member and is working in El
Salvador through ACT.
Benedicto Romero, the LWF emergency worker in this part of Usulatán
Province, has been working for the agency since reconstruction began after
Hurricane Mitch in late 1998. The earthquake means he'll stay on, helping
LWF and other ACT member agencies assist communities like Nueva Guadalupe in
building new homes.

Even before the first earthquake struck, El Salvador's housing situation was
in critical condition. According to the United Nations Development Program,
the country lacked 551,000 homes in 1999, meaning that roughly 2.5 million
inhabitants -- 40 percent of the Salvadoran population -- were without
adequate shelter. With the destruction of the January earthquake, the
situation has gone from bad to worse; the country now lacks some 675,000
housing units, according to the government's housing and urban development

With thousands of people still living in refugee shelters, and hundreds of
thousands living in plastic shelters hastily constructed on the ruins of
their former homes, the next few weeks are critical, relief officials
report. In order to help the greatest number of victims to begin
reconstruction soon, many nongovernmental organizations are planning to
provide homeless families with four posts and several sheets of roofing
material. It will be up to the families to provide walls.

ACT members, including UMCOR, have been providing emergency services to more
than 200,000 people in affected communities.

Donations to relief efforts in El Salvador can be designated to UMCOR
Advance No. 511447-8, "El Salvador Earthquake." Checks may be dropped in
church collection plates or mailed to UMCOR at 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330,
New York, NY 10115. Credit-card donations can be made by calling (800)

# # #

*Jeffrey, a United Methodist missionary and journalist, wrote this story for
ACT International. 

United Methodist News Service
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