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El Salvador's Quake Victims Continue to Rebuild - 2002-03-26


On January 13, 2001, an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale shook the small Central American nation of El Salvador, killing more than 800 people. Most victims were buried under a massive landslide in a housing development called "Las Colinas" in the Santa Tecla community near the capital of San Salvador. Fourteen months later survivors continue to struggle to rebuild their lives.

Workers are busy repairing and rebuilding homes on the periphery of the two-block-wide area that was swept away by the landslide, but most of the area remains a wasteland. Here and there, there are patches of white lime thrown on the ground to reduce the possibility of disease and to suppress the foul smell from decomposing bodies and body parts still trapped underneath the earth.

There are also makeshift monuments, some with the names of victims who died there and some with simply bunches of flowers drying in the intense heat.

Alejandro Flores, a civil engineer, is supervising the work on his house. The landslide swept away the front of his home and buried most of his neighbors. He has spent his own money from savings to carry out the reconstruction. He says the government has declared the Las Colinas area a risky place for construction, so banks will not give loans to people wanting to rebuild here.

Up the street, community leader David Valera Chavez works in the modest home he recently rebuilt. He lost his wife and a daughter in the disaster, but chose to remain here because it is his home. He says he used up all the savings he had put away for retirement to rebuild. He says the government has a responsibility to help people here.

He says he never would have moved here if he had known of the risk. He says he liked living below a hill with trees and birds singing. According to Mr. Valera Chavez there were studies dating back to 1994 indicating that deforestation and construction on the hill overlooking Las Colinas presented a risk, but the government provided no warning.

To make matters worse, he says he and other residents are still making mortgage payments to a government program that lent them money to buy their houses. In some cases, he says, people whose houses were completely destroyed are still obligated to pay.

A recent ruling by El Salvador's Supreme Court makes it difficult for survivors of the landslide to make claims for assistance. The court ruled that only direct victims could demand compensation, but, as Mr. Valera Chavez notes, the victims are all dead. He says insurance payments have also been of little help since they typically have paid only about 10 percent of the total cost of the house that was destroyed.

Looking out his front door, Mr. Varela Chavez surveys the bleak emptiness of the devastated swath of land where the landslide fell. He sees a small bunch of flowers that he put out in remembrance of his lost loved ones.

The government of President Francisco Flores has provided temporary housing and other assistance to earthquake victims, but officials say the massive destruction overwhelmed the nation's meager social assistance capabilities.

The earthquake in January, 2001 and another one a month later left more than 1,000 people dead and more than 20 percent of the country's six million inhabitants homeless. The country suffered about $2 billion in total damage.

The Salvadoran government has used nearly $400 million in foreign assistance to repair and restore infrastructure and to provide housing. The government has also put emphasis on repairing schools damaged by the quakes.

But because El Salvador is a poor nation with few resources of its own to devote to recovery, the effects of last year's disasters are likely to be felt here for many years to come.

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