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Nicaragua quake survivors get new homes - 40 years after disaster

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"Very-large-scale disasters, especially those that have occurred in the developing world, have very long recovery periods," says Irwin Redlener, a physician and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York. "The temporary housing might become permanent, or very longstanding."

That is certainly the case in many parts of historical downtown Managua – a crossroads of fault lines that has been left in weed-grown partial abandonment since the 1972 quake. In total, 541 city blocks in Managua were destroyed or irreparably damaged and had to be leveled afterward.

The majority of middle- and upper-class citizens fled, joining an exodus of 250,000, more than half the population of the city. But those living in shantytowns had no place to go, so they forged lives for themselves among the devastation, waiting for government help. "We thought we were going to die there. We never thought we would be moved out," says Erminia Pineda, a longtime resident of the apartment buildings, where as many as 45 people would live on a floor built to house only four or five and which was governed by its own set of laws and social norms. Each floor had its own hierarchy of power, based on seniority and economic clout within the buildings. Residents took care of their own security, organizing into vigilance groups to watch over one another's belongings. Walls often fell down. Rain came through cracks. Each time the ground shook, residents worried the buildings would come down.

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