Shaken El Salvador Fears for Tomorrow
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
SANTA TECLA, El Salvador
In the cool darkness of the predawn, residents of a tent city called
the Stadium begin to stir. Their regimen is humdrum: wake up at 5:30 by
announcement, calisthenics at 5:45, personal and communal cleanup at dawn, breakfast at 8.
The routine is reassuringly stable for the more than 600 people who
live in the Stadium, most of whom have been stuck there since being shaken
from their homes by
the earthquake that struck El Salvador on Jan. 13. But behind the routine looms uncertainty for these and others among the more than 1 million victims. "What is
going to happen tomorrow?" asked Maj. Eduardo Chacon, one of the soldiers in charge at the camp. "That is the question everyone is asking."
The 7.6-magnitude earthquake that rocked this small nation for 36 seconds
caused mountainsides to collapse on top of neighborhoods and onto highways,
homes and ripping up roads. The brunt of the disaster hit in Santa Tecla, three miles west of the capital, San Salvador. In all, 688 homes around here were buried
under a mound of dirt and rocks. Hundreds perished.
Concepcion Navidad considers herself one of the lucky ones. Her little
house, in the hard-hit neighborhood of Los Amates just outside Santa Tecla,
the quake struck. That day, she and her family were evacuated by army helicopter to a temporary shelter and then transferred to the Stadium three days later.
"We lost everything, but that is material," Navidad said. "At least you can replace that. But a life, you can't."
As national and international aid converged on Santa Tecla to begin
the grisly task of unearthing victims right after the disaster, President
Francisco Flores urged
Salvadorans to remain calm. "The worst is over," Flores said on Jan. 15.
Now, almost four weeks later, Flores has declared a state of emergency,
and officials say the situation will only be aggravated come late April.
That is the beginning
of the rainy season, known here as winter. The fear is that heavy rains could cause more deadly landslides.
Government and private relief agencies are working feverishly against
the onset of the rain, designing a plan to prevent landslides, including
filling in fissures created by
the quake and compacting the earth along the nearby mountain range, El Balsamo. They will also decide by mid-February whether any residents may return to rebuild
their houses along that mountain chain.
Flores announced a national reconstruction plan last week that would,
initially, provide enough materials to homeless quake victims to build
tin-roof houses. That falls short of replacing the 92,990 houses that were destroyed around the country and 130,515 that were damaged. Officials estimate the total
reconstruction effort will cost at least $1.5 billion, about one-seventh of the nation's annual budget.
In an ominous report to his cabinet, politicians, the diplomatic corps
and local businessmen on Feb. 2, Flores said that not only was the entire
country vulnerable to
geological faults, but that the earthquake substantially weakened the mountain ranges that crisscross the nation. "The emergency has not ended," Flores said. "The
winter represents a danger also."
Overall, recovery has proceeded fitfully. The government's first attempts
to distribute emergency provisions were chaotic or overly bureaucratic,
criticism from opposition officials and depriving shelters of food and water for days.
Provisions eventually were funneled directly to municipalities, but
still some opposition mayors refused to accept government aid. Then there
were initial allegations
that some local relief volunteers were stealing provisions or trying to sell them to earthquake victims. Some countries, including Canada and Spain, funneled their aid
through nongovernmental agencies or political parties.
Regardless of where it is sent, Flores said recently, the aid is slow
in coming and it is likely to fall short. Feeding the thousands of homeless
living in 132 provisional
camps requires 100,000 tons of supplies every 72 hours, he said.
And basic aid has not yet reached every victim. The quake damaged 12
of El Salvador's 14 provinces, hitting such medium-size cities as Usulutan
in the southeast as
well as the poorest, most remote areas. One-sixth of El Salvador's population -- almost 1.2 million people -- were significantly affected by the quake. Most are
"Every one of our houses of adobe was damaged," said Marlene Chevez
of El Carizal, a community of 187 families hidden behind fields of sugar
cane and sesame
stalks. They live on dirt floors and get potable water only two hours a day from a communal spout.
The residents of El Carizal, in Usulutan province about 50 miles east
of San Salvador, are like most of El Salvador's quake victims: extremely
poor and living in the
worst of conditions even before the disaster.
Chevez and her neighbors, ignored by the mayor of the nearest municipality,
Jiquilisco, and invisible to private aid agencies making the rounds, have
guerrilla tactics to get help. Every morning, Chevez and her neighbors walk a mile to the closest highway carrying a battered cardboard sign to wave at passersby.
The words on the placard, written half in marker and half in lipstick, say: "El Carizal needs your help, including food supplies, clothes, blankets and sleeping mats.
Thank you for your collaboration."
The latest data show 827 people died and 4,520 were injured in the Jan.
13 quake, which has been followed by more than 1,300 aftershocks. Just
this past week,
two powerful tremors registering 5.1 on the Richter scale shook the country.
This in a nation not fully recovered from the effects of Hurricane Mitch
in 1998 and that is still struggling with the political and economic fallout
of a 12-year civil war
that killed 75,000 before it ended in 1992.
"It is more important than ever that everyone find enough common ground
to overcome this problem," said Gino Lofredo, director of Catholic Relief
Services of El
Salvador. "The most critical thing is to find a way for the central government, the municipal governments and the nongovernmental and community groups to work
together. Otherwise, it doesn't matter how many tons of food are sent."