From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Churches work together to assist Salvadoran quake victims

Date 16 Feb 2001 13:50:13

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

NOTE: Photographs and a related story, UMNS #084, are available with this

By Paul Jeffrey*

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (UMNS) -- The earth won't stop shaking in El
Salvador. One month after a devastating quake struck this Central American
nation, a second major earthquake has killed hundreds more and left even
more towns in ruins.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) again will be among the
church-related agencies responding to the crisis. But donations to assist El
Salvador have been slow coming in, according to Wendy Whiteside, an UMCOR

Action by Churches Together (ACT), of which UMCOR is a member, had issued an
emergency appeal for $3.9 million following the initial earthquake on Jan.
13 in El Salvador. A month later, however, the appeal had only raised $1.1
million. ACT is a global alliance of church-based relief agencies.

After the first quake, registering 7.6 on the Richter scale, Salvadorans had
grown accustomed to aftershocks. More than 3,000 occurred during the first
month, seismologists reported. Many were too minor to notice, while others
were of sufficient strength to send people running out of buildings.

Scientists haven't decided whether the killer quake on Feb. 13, a month to
the day after January's disaster, was an aftershock or a separate seismic
event. The temblor, measured at 6.6, struck an area in eastern El Salvador
relatively untouched by January's disaster. While January's quake was
centered deep under the ocean off the country's coast, the epicenter of the
more recent quake was just 24 kilometers from San Salvador, close to where
the provinces of La Paz and Cuscatlan share a border. It was also fatally
shallow -- only 14 kilometers under the surface.

While damage from January's quake was widespread, most of the Feb. 13 damage
was contained within a relatively small area. Yet destruction in the densely
populated region was severe.

As of Feb. 16, government emergency officials put the death toll for the
latest quake at more than 300, but acknowledged that scores more remain
missing, many trapped in collapsed buildings or buried under hillsides that
slid onto roads or fields. Access to several remote villages remained
difficult. Officials said more than 2,500 people were injured, and 13,545
houses were destroyed.

The latest tragedy brings the total death toll to more than a thousand
people, and more than a million Salvadorans have been directly affected.
Almost a quarter-million houses have been destroyed or damaged since Jan.

Despite being worn down by a month of relief work, members of El Salvador's
Protestant churches responded quickly to the latest disaster. Within
minutes, several Rapid Response Teams were in the field attending to the

Separate teams were dispatched by the Salvadoran Lutheran Synod, Emmanuel
Baptist Church, the Episcopal Church of El Salvador, the Reformed Church,
and the Salvadoran office of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). All these
groups coordinate their relief work through ACT El Salvador, the local
network of ACT.

ACT El Salvador also provided transportation and logistical support for a
group of physicians and nurses from the University of El Salvador. Medical
personnel and emergency vehicles from several members of ACT Nicaragua
joined the relief effort on Feb. 15.

The church teams provided emergency attention and supplies to more than
15,000 people in the area affected by the Feb. 13 earthquake, according to
Carlos Rauda, LWF program director in San Salvador. More than 200,000 people
received assistance from ACT El Salvador in the aftermath of the January

The ACT network takes advantage of the intimate knowledge that church
workers possess of remote communities. "The churches know the reality of the
people, especially the poor," said Bishop Medardo Gomez of the Salvadoran
Lutheran Synod. "And the churches are always there, part of the people in
good times and in bad."

According to Rudelmar Bueno de Faria, LWF country representative and
coordinator of ACT El Salvador, the churches offer a valuable model to the
government for responding to disasters.

"The government did not have networks established ahead of time, and it took
them valuable time to establish alliances with different sectors of society
in order to respond in affected communities," Bueno de Faria said.

"The disaster would have been much worse had other networks, especially
those of the churches, not assumed a major role in responding quickly to the
needs of the victims," he added. "The churches are the one organization that
has historically been present in the most marginalized communities, in the
zones of death. They have a strong commitment to serving the poorest of the
poor, and they have what we call 'installed capacity,' including ready
volunteers who know the local community and are willing to work long hours
in serving others. It's not a surprise that in many communities the churches
were the first to respond."

This grass-roots experience has been leveraged into even greater
effectiveness through coordinated work with a variety of other agencies. ACT
El Salvador also includes two secular members: the Salvadoran Ecological
Unity, a coalition of more than 40 environmental groups that investigates
ecological abuse and lobbies to protect the country's beleaguered natural
resources; and the Foundation for Studies on the Application of Rights, an
organization providing legal assistance to victims.

ACT El Salvador has worked closely with United Nations agencies and the
World Food Program, and since well before the current emergency has
coordinated a network of more than 50 international nongovernmental
organizations operating in the country. ACT El Salvador has collaborated on
relief tasks with the government's National Secretariate for the Family, and
has conducted workshops for local mayors on organization and effective aid
management. In many communities, ACT El Salvador has worked with evangelical
and Catholic congregations that are not formally part of the network,
providing emergency food, clothing, medicine and shelter materials, as well
as sponsoring workshops in humanitarian response.

The cooperation among churches responding to the needs of El Salvador's
disaster victims is a welcome change from the political tensions generated
by the earthquakes. El Salvador is a highly polarized country, and from the
moment the ground stopped shaking on Jan. 13, both the ruling Republican
Nationalist Alliance (ARENA) and the opposition Farabundo Marti National
Liberation Front (FMLN) have sought to take political advantage of the
disaster. Much of the debate has centered on how President Francisco Flores
has managed the crisis.

What seems certain is that life in rural towns devastated by the quakes is
going to be more difficult. "The places most affected by the earthquake are
already the poorest areas of the country, and life is going to get worse.
Much of this country is going to stop being livable," said Angel Ibarra, a
physician and community leader.

Donations for relief efforts in El Salvador should 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)

# # #

*This is an adaptation of a story written by Paul Jeffrey, a United
Methodist missionary and journalist, for ACT International.

United Methodist News Service
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