Salvadorans Also Face Task Of Rebuilding 'The Spirit'
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
SAN CAYETANO ISTEPEQUE, El Salvador -- A week has passed since Edgar
Antonio Orantes ran home from work to find his aunt's body in the rubble
house, his village's 300-year-old Roman Catholic church a shambles, three of his neighbors dead and hundreds of homes destroyed by the second powerful
earthquake to hit El Salvador in a month.
Orantes, an employee of Caritas, a Catholic charitable agency, has since
put aside his grief to do what he believes he must: work day and night
to bring emergency
provisions of water, food, sleeping mats, blankets and plastic to the thousands who are sleeping in the dusty streets. Next comes the reconstruction of homes.
"But the reconstruction of the spirit, that's another thing," Orantes
said as he stood inside the ruins of St. Cayetano Church in this village
on the edge of San Vicente
35 miles east of San Salvador, the capital.
As El Salvador digs out of the rubble caused by three earthquakes --
on Jan. 13, Feb. 13 and again Saturday -- the fortitude of the Salvadoran
people is being
tested. So much so that a popular radio broadcaster on YSKL-FM in San Salvador summed it up by asking: "We've had more than 3,500 tremors, three
earthquakes, 1,200 dead, half the country destroyed, 1.5 million homeless, the civil war, the earthquake of 1986, Hurricane Mitch, the dengue and rotavirus
epidemics. So many things. What else can happen to us?"
Already, a plan laid out in December by President Francisco Flores to
seek hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from international financial
institutions to invest in
infrastructure and education has taken a back seat to the emergency. Government officials have had to focus on pleas for reconstruction aid, particularly in light of the
rainy season that starts in late April. The rains could wreak havoc on any earthquake victims who remain living under flimsy plastic tents or could cause mudslides on
mountains already destabilized by the earthquakes.
Flores will ask foreign governments and international organizations
to help fund a multibillion-dollar reconstruction plan at a meeting next
month in Madrid. He has
said publicly that he is not worried about rebuilding the country. But, he told local reporters Friday, "I do worry about the country's spirit."
The second deadly earthquake last week, plus a third major one over
the weekend and almost-continual aftershocks, have created panic among
much of the
country's 5.7 million inhabitants, rivaled only by the 12-year civil war that took 75,000 lives before it ended in 1992.
"This past Tuesday the 13th, I touched bottom," the longtime spokesman
for the Red Cross of El Salvador, Carlos Lopez Mendoza, wrote in Sunday's
edition of El
Diario de Hoy. "For the first time ever, I cried out of fear."
In addition to thousands who were injured when buildings collapsed on
top of them, cases of anxiety, depression, insomnia, skin eruptions, diarrhea,
and facial paralysis caused by stress have been reported. One veteran clinical psychologist said some children and elderly people have regressed to bed-wetting.
Antidepressants are prescribed freely.
"It's the uncertainty, and some people can't handle it," said Gladis
Ortiz Zepeda, who has worked at the Military Hospital in San Salvador for
20 years. "People don't
know what's going to happen tomorrow. We may wake up today, but what's going to happen tomorrow?"
Some have answered that question by taking their own lives, she said.
Ortiz said she knows of at least two residents of Santa Tecla, a San Salvador
committed suicide after the first earthquake unleashed a landslide that buried the Las Colinas neighborhood and killed more than 800 people.
The public health minister, Jose Lopez Beltran, a physician, said at
a news conference on Sunday that more than 8,000 citizens have sought psychiatric
psychological help since the first two quakes struck. Speaking just hours after a third, 5.3-magnitude earthquake sent people screaming into the streets in and around
San Salvador, Lopez said, "I'm sure that's gone up by now."
Others in this deeply religious country -- which is majority Roman Catholic
but has many followers of evangelical groups -- believe the earthquakes
from God. A survey conducted by the CID Gallup consulting firm, according to El Diario de Hoy, found that 36 percent of the population believe the quakes are a
divine sign that the end of the world is near.
Still other Salvadorans apparently are trying to escape from the still-shaking
country even if for a short time. Requests for visitor visas are the highest
since the U.S.
Embassy began an appointment system a year ago. Almost all requests have been made since the first earthquake. The wait to get in and make a case for a visitor
visa is now 10 weeks, said U.S. Ambassador Rose M. Likins.