A quake, a slide, another lesson
Deforestation escalated quake damage in El Salvador.
Katia Calderon went out with her sisters Saturday morning to buy notebooks and pens for the first day of school, which was supposed to begin today. That simple act of preparation saved the girls' lives.
But their home on the outskirts of San Salvador was one of 300 houses buried in a landslide caused by a 7.6 magnitude quake centered in El Salvador and felt throughout Central America.
"My parents were in there. We have done everything possible to find them - with machines, with everything. But we haven't been able to find them yet," says Katia, her teenage voice faltering.
While the massive temblor has brought the nation together in rescue efforts marked by acts of solidarity and dedication, some Salvadorans are saying it wasn't the quake but a landslide that caused the most deaths. And they're angry with the government's failure to take preventive measures. Environmentalists here say deforestation on the slopes of the Balsamo Mountains may have contributed to the landslide that buried Katia's home and others in Las Colinas.
Indeed, experts say that Salvador's earthquake demonstrates once again what people learned in Venezuela's devastating landslides in 1999 and across Central America in 1998 with hurricane Mitch - that disregard for the environment exacerbates whatever destructive wallop natural
phenomena like earthquakes and floods carry.
Intense construction on Venezuela's Caribbean coast, and hundreds of cases of disregard for established land-use restrictions - often with official complicity - led to one of South America's worst disasters. More than 30,000 people perished in those mudslides.
And with Mitch, loss of life and property damage in Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador were much worse than it would have been because of heavy deforestation and uncontrolled construction in known risk zones.
In both cases, corruption was an important culprit of the human suffering, just as environmentalists and other watchdog groups may find was a factor in Saturday's landslides in El Salvador.
"For years and years, we have been saying we have to protect the Balsamo Mountains," says Ricardo Navarro, director of The Center for Appropriate Technology, a local environmental group affiliated with Friends of the Earth International. "We said there's going to be a tremor, and it's going to collapse, and that's what happened."
Mr. Navarro's group has filed cases before many different governmental entities to try to stop the deforestation and construction of homes there. But the desperate need for new housing and construction industry interests took precedence, he says.
Saturday's quake has claimed at least 400 lives, and Red Cross officials estimate another 1,200 people are still missing. But it's not as devastating as the 1986 quake here that killed 1,500, injured 20,000, and left some 300,000 homeless.
Currently, Las Colinas is the neighborhood where the rescue efforts are concentrated. Yesterday, a thousand rescue workers labored on the site where hundreds of homes lay buried beneath the rubble. Rescue workers labored all weekend, but mostly in vain.
Sergio Moreno was one of the few survivors rescued. He was trapped under a beam in his home for more than 30 hours until late Sunday. Red Cross doctors worked to keep him alive while firemen and concerned citizens dug him out. His parents stood visibly anxious on a mound of earth nearby.
"We've been here since Saturday waiting to see if they can get our son out. We came here from Sonsonate after the earthquake. We imagined many things. But we never imagined our son would be trapped," Juan Moreno said.
Even with the multitude of workers and concerned citizens, the scene at the Las Colinas neighborhood was solemn and quiet, agitated only by the occasional tremors that continue to rattle the capital city and the nerves of its residents.
Despite the intense efforts at Las Colinas and other areas around the country, some of the survivors are critical of how the government handled the earthquake.
"The government's aid took too long to get here to be able to excavate and get people out alive. If it was done with more urgency, many deaths would have been avoided," says Victor Villanueva, who lives near the site of the Las Colinas landslide.
Navarro's environmental group is studying the possibility of uniting with victims and taking the government to court for the damage at Las Colinas.
The immediate order of business in El Salvador is, of course, emergency intervention - reaching buried victims who may still be alive, attending to those left homeless, and reuniting separated families.
But officials, including President Francisco Flores, must also be pursuing relief efforts with thoughts of medium- and long-term political and economic implications in the back of their minds. They know firsthand that natural disasters in this region prone to earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanic eruption have a history of wreaking political upheaval and spawning social change.
The 1972 Managua earthquake is generally considered a factor in the fall of Nicaragua's Somoza regime to the Sandinista revolution in 1979, for example, since it highlighted the military regime's corruption and inefficiency.
In a similar way, a massive earthquake in Guatemala in 1976 put El Salvador's neighbor on the road to religious diversity, many historians say. The dominant Roman Catholic Church was perceived as slow to respond to Guatemalans' human needs in the quake's aftermath, but newcomer evangelical churches jumped in with assistance from grass-roots relief drives in churches outside Guatemala, many in the United States. As a result, many practical-minded Guatemalans considered conversion for the first time.
More recently, hurricane Mitch in October 1998 worked as a catalyst for Central America's economic and political integration. President Flores and his fellow Central American presidents also learned from Mitch the importance of the international media in opening the founts of relief assistance.
Some foreign observers even accused the Central American leaders of inflating Mitch's toll in a drive for international intervention.
Mitch also instigated an emphasis on disaster prevention, a new concept in a region hampered by a strong belief in fate. But experts say too little progress is being made in institutionalizing preventive planning. Central America covers the meeting points of six tectonic plates, it counts more than two dozen active volcanoes, and its shores are vulnerable to tropical storms half the year.
Mexico was one of the first countries to respond to El Salvador's needs, sending tons of food, blankets, and medicine, as well as 150 soldiers and dogs specially trained in disaster relief. Accompanying the soldiers is the director of Mexico's National Disaster Prevention Center, Oscar Navarro, who recently helped direct disaster-prevention efforts in response to the eruption of the Popocatepetl volcano outside Mexico City.
If some Salvadorans are disenchanted by the government's response, they have also been moved by the outpouring of support from fellow citizens and from abroad. Many neighbors brought their shovels and are helping to look for survivors, while others deliver plates of food to rescue workers. Salvadoran military members and workers from the construction industry drove earth movers and dump trucks.
Once the situation in Guatemala - where the quake was also felt and claimed six lives - was stabilized, firemen from that neighboring country came to help. The US sent in teams of Army doctors and engineers who had been stationed in neighboring Honduras.
Rescue workers continue to work around the clock to locate people like Katia's parents.
"These people are altruists in solidarity with us. They are worried about people they don't even know," says Katia from the home of neighbors who have taken her and her siblings in.
Staff writer Howard LaFranchi in Mexico contributed to this story.
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