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Nicaragua quake survivors get new homes - 40 years after disaster

The Nicaraguan government has completed permanent housing for 103 families who have been squatting in the ruins of four abandoned high-rises in Managua since the 1972 earthquake.

By Tim Rogers/ Correspondent, / Staff writer / June 16, 2011

‘The ruins’ (in the process of being demolished) were apartments damaged in a 1972 quake. Abandoned by their original residents, they were occupied by squatters whose homes had been destroyed.

Tim Rogers

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Managua, Nicaragua; and Mexico City

When Guillermo Martin Treminio's house crumbled in the 1972 earthquake that leveled Nicaragua's capital, killing 10,000 people and destroying 50,000 buildings and homes, he had nowhere to go. So he moved his family into a crumbling apartment building in downtown Managua that the wealthy had abandoned.

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Mr. Treminio's refugeelike living conditions, which he had once hoped would be temporary, became home for almost 40 years. "We had lost hope," he recalls.

But now he has finally moved his family into permanent housing, thanks to a government program to relocate 103 families who also squatted in the skeletal remains of four abandoned high-rises known as "the ruins." It's one of the last efforts of cleanup after the devastating quake.

"The so-called squatter settlements in the ruins are nothing more than earthquake refugees who never got a place to live after the quake," says Nicaraguan historian Roberto Sánchez Ramírez.

Their four-decade-long plight may be extreme, but it highlights a reality in the wake of large-scale disaster, both natural and human-caused. Though critics often fault governments and aid organizations for the slow pace of reconstruction, months and even years may pass before the displaced regain a solid sense of home.

In Haiti, a year and a half after its devastating earthquake, permanent housing reconstruction has not even begun. Even after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the aftermath of which is seen as a model for reconstruction, it took four years for families to find permanent homes. Five years after hurricane Katrina in the United States, thousands remained in temporary housing.

"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.

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