Salvadoran officials fear quake 'ghettoes'
BY FRANCES ROBLES
SAN SALVADOR -- Perched beside his aging sewing machine, cloth-cutting
scissors in hand, Emilio Alfaro represents the best and worst of El Salvador's
The tailor is homeless and living under a plastic tarp in a tent
city erected after
the Jan. 13 quake that killed 844 people, left 220,000 homes in shambles, and
about 1.3 million people on the street. He spent eight days sitting around the
soccer stadium that now serves as home, watching kids get dirty and sick.
So he sneaked back to his mountain house -- closed off for risk
of mudslides --
and rescued his sewing machine from the rubble.
``I had school uniforms to complete,'' Alfaro said. ``I figured
I might as well finish
``Here'' is the Cafetalón, a soccer stadium-turned-tent
city where 3,000 people
now live, including many of Alfaro's clients. It's where Alfaro has set up shop,
where the customers who didn't die pick up slacks he has hemmed.
Alfaro is being held up by the news media as a symbol of Salvadoran
an example of the ability of people in this country long torn by war and natural
disasters to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and start over.
But in other ways, he's exactly what some observers fear: a victim
living on the street -- one who is making do with what could become a shantytown
of 3,000 people. In the backdrop of El Salvador's race to build homes for the 1
million living in makeshift shacks is the bitter reality that past natural disasters
produced slum towns for the poor. Entire neighborhoods cropped up from
government programs or neglect and took on the names of the dates that created
``There's a town called the 3rd of May that was the result of
a quake in 1965,''
said San Salvador Mayor Hector Silva. ``Of course there exists the risk that we
will now create the 13th of January community. That's what we're all trying to
He admits that the government's desire to seek adequate housing
will prolong the
quake victims' homelessness. But he is adamant that the country should not
create earthquake ghettoes.
``We're looking for . . . construction that doesn't create more misery,'' Silva said.
El Salvador is in a race against time. Can the country build 100,000
May, when the rainy season begins?
``It's grim,'' said Peter Loach, program manager of the Cooperative
Foundation, a Maryland-based organization contracted to build 8,200 temporary
homes for earthquake victims.
``A thousand or 1,500 houses will take six months to a year to
build. No one
sitting around can build 1,000 houses in three months. No one has that kind of
capacity. It's going to be until the end of the year before these people see
The task at hand is enormous. Government statistics show that
just over 91,000
homes were destroyed and another 130,000 damaged in the quake. The bulk of
the work will be concentrated in the province of Usulutan, which had a whopping
340,354 left homeless. In some towns there, not a single home is standing.
Nearly 100 schools were lost around the country, forcing children
classes in shifts because their schools are now piles of rocks. Nearly 1,600 more
schools were damaged, 273 severely enough that the building is still standing but
the kids are having classes taught in the yard outside.
``I'm sure there are plenty of kids -- plenty -- who aren't in
school at all,'' said
Mauricio Ferrer, director of the federal emergency management agency.
Maria Isabel Ramirez, a 1986 quake victim, knows this plight well.
spent a year in a tent before a government-sponsored program created her
poverty-stricken neighborhood, the 10th of October, named for the day the
tremors shook down the walls. She pays $6 a month for a lot, and nothing for the
concrete house the government gave her family. Poverty abounds, but the fruit
vendor notes that she's far better off than hundreds of thousands of this year's
victims, who lived in misery without water or light even before the quake.
``This is not a marginal community,'' she asserts, even though
that social problems have plagued it from the start. ``It's not good or bad. At least
Interior Minister Mario Acosta said the effort to gather the hundreds
of millions of
dollars needed is daunting.
Offers of foreign aid have poured in, but he says the government
because of a long history of offers that never came through. So far, $600 million to
$700 million has been pledged, he said.
The United States has offered $6 million for temporary housing,
and is expected
to seek more from Congress.
El Salvador, he said, now must compete with India -- where a quake
Jan. 16 killed
more than 17,000 people -- for limited international dollars.
Said Alfaro, the tailor: ``We're not doing too well. We fear we
have to pass the
winter here. These tents are not strong enough to endure a winter. We'll be here
as long as necessary: We don't have anywhere else to go.''