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Chile earthquake takes heavy toll on historical sites

For many the Chile earthquake is over. Not for Oscar Acuña, who is racing the clock to save historical sites from demolition and further disrepair.

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Scores of 100-year-old churches and chapels crumbled, while hundreds of aftershocks continue to shake the ground in Chile, finishing the job of ruining partially damaged structures.

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The quake exposed longstanding neglect, especially of religious monuments, Troncoso adds. But as far as she is concerned, everything is repairable, and the commission has been working with priests to inventory church losses.

But in many cases, the teams of architects have arrived to find the city has already demolished damaged buildings.

Government quick to demolish

One such building is Jenny Figueroa’s home in Santiago’s historic neighborhood of Barrio Brasil. After the second floor crumbled under the force of the quake, the family of 17 and seven tenants spent several nights sleeping on the street, too scared to go inside but unwilling to leave their home. When help finally arrived days later the diagnosis was simple and immediate: Take it all down.

“We intend to defend this house whatever the consequence,” Ms. Figueroa says. “Where else can we go? The street?” With the help of the NMC, the Figueroas persuaded the government that the ground floor, which they now occupy, can be restored. That’s not the case for their neighbors, whose building is scheduled to be demolished.

“The government considers these homes a danger and wants to get rid of them before the next big earthquake,” Figueroa says. “But what are we talking about here? Buildings that are barely two years old fell to the ground, and ours is still standing.”

Maria Paz Valenzuela, a professor of architecture at the University of Chile, coordinates the nation’s architectural archive, which contains the blueprints and historical information of Chile’s key cultural buildings. She has been working alongside Acuña’s teams from the NMC.

Like Acuña, Ms. Valenzuela sees the urgency. “Obviously there is a need to house the people who lost their homes,” she says. “But I think we have to wait until the dust settles before we demolish everything and replace it with buildings that have no identity.”

Pressing needs continue

Much can be saved, Acuña says, though the biggest challenge facing Chile is securing the resources to rebuild. A good start would be an overhaul of Chile’s outdated monuments law. From the perspective of providing incentives the law is obsolete, according to Acuña. He says the NMC’s yearly budget is less than $2 million.

“The owner of cultural patrimony has no economic support that helps or encourages him with conservation,” Acuña says. “We have an opportunity now to create incentives for owners to preserve buildings.”

One source of funding is the state, but Acuña expects business interests to play a key role in restoring Chile’s historic sites. There has already been widespread interest in working with the NMC to rebuild, a process expected to take years. Right now the most pressing need is to find thousands of yards of plastic to cover damaged buildings’ exposed adobe before the rainy season begins.

“The earthquake happened and for many people it’s over,” Acuña says. “But for us the subject of cultural patrimony will go on for years to come.”

IN PICTURES: Rebuilding after an earthquake