Al Asnam, Algeria — At a first glance, parts of Al Asnam appear to have almost escaped the earthquake. Many of the buildings in the city are still standing, even though the walls have deep cracks and seem to tilt at odd angles.
The appearance is an illusion because the internal structure of these buildings has been so shattered by the quake that they will never be safe for people to live in again. That is why the present plan is to pull down and rebuild much of the damaged city.
"Some journalists say this town was 80 percent destroyed," an Algerian government official told me while we were walking through the town. "For us, it is 100 percent destroyed. All of these buildings, every one of them, are going to have to be torn down."
The real impact of the quake hits most people when they see the Al-Nasr housing project or the Chelif Hotel. Both buildings are nothing more than mounds of twisted steel and crumpled concrete.
The Al-Nasr housing complex, which ironically was built by the French to house victims of the 1954 earthquake which ravaged Al Asnam 26 years ago, collapsed with three to four thousand people inside it. Hardly anyone managed to escape. The walls seemed to buckle and then disintegrate, allowing the roof to fall through to the ground.
Abdelkader Mayouf was working as a technician in the city hospital when the quake hit. "The hospital wall suddenly split open in front of me," he says. "I jumped through the opening."
Mr. Mayouf was one of the few to survive the collapse of the city's only hospital. He immediately went to see his family at the Al-Nasr project. The ceiling of the second floor was slowly moving toward the floor but there was still enough space for him to crawl inside. He managed to save his sister and father but his mother was pinned to the ground. He had to leave her behind.
Miraculously, even after hope was given up of finding any more survivors, people still continued to be pulled alive from the rubble. Four days after the Oct. 10 quake, workmen in one residential area told me that there was no possibility that twisted steel girders that they were picking apart with a steam shovel.
A half hour later, they had managed to break into the building's basement and pull out a young girl. Aside from minor injuries, she was unscathed. In perfect French she said she did not want to go to the hospital.
That kind of thing is going to be rarer now and authorities say openly that they want to devote their energy to taking care of the living.
Meanwhile, disaster relief aid has poured into the area from Algeria and abroad. The United States sent a disaster survey team and US cargo planes have delivered badly needed supplies. Other nations have made similar contributions toward the massive relief job.
In another move, the Algerian Army has been put in complete charge of relief and rescue operations, taking over from local authorities swamped by the magnitude of the task.
Many people fled to Algiers after the quake struck, but some 80,000 people remain behind in Al Asnam. Another 325,000 are homeless in the region. Some of the outlying villages have no food, water, or shelter. People there are living in the open or under bales of hay.
What the government needs most are tents. It has almost none at the moment, but there are plans to move virtually the whole population of Al Asnam into a series of tent cities outside the city. The tents will hold the population three to four months until prefabricated housing can be put up.
The temporary housing will be set up in communes 10 to 15 kilometers outside the city. Then Al Asnam will be closed to the public and razed to the ground. The next problem will be where to rebuild it.
Some of the worst damage in Al Asnam is being blamed on faulty construction by the French following the 1954 quake. The Al-Nasr housing complex in particular was built on columns of reenforced concrete that any architect should have known would not provide adequate protection in a major quake.
But some people now feel that the site of Al Asnam itself is disaster prone. The 1954 quake hit seven miles northeast of the city. The quake this time hit seven miles southwest. In the 1930s the whole area was ravaged by a series of quakes that destroyed whole towns.
The frequency of the quakes results from the fact that Al Asnam lies in a broad valley between two mountain chains that run parallel to the Mediterranean. The mountains close to the sea are on a part of the earth's crust, known as a plate, which is gradually moving toward Europe at the rate of 1.5 centimeters a year.