The Miami Herald
February 11, 2001

Salvadoran officials fear quake 'ghettoes'


 SAN SALVADOR -- Perched beside his aging sewing machine, cloth-cutting
 scissors in hand, Emilio Alfaro represents the best and worst of El Salvador's
 earthquake aftermath.

 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
 them here.''

 ``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 resilience,
 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 getting cozy
 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 homes before
 May, when the rainy season begins?

 ``It's grim,'' said Peter Loach, program manager of the Cooperative Housing
 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 to attend
 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. Her family
 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 she acknowledges
 that social problems have plagued it from the start. ``It's not good or bad. At least
 it's super-cheap.''

 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 is skeptical
 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.''