Neighbors stick together in quake-relief camps

As efforts shift to relief after Saturday's temblor in El Salvador, water is scarce, but the spirit resolute.

Until only a few days ago, the El Cafetalon Park was a recreation area and an oasis of green, open space in the town of Santa Tecla, just south of here. Today it is filled with a motley collection of tents and makeshift lean-tos crafted from black plastic and bamboo posts. It is El Salvador's largest relief camp, where thousands of those rendered homeless by the recent earthquake are being tended to.

As hope of finding more survivors fades, the emphasis of the post-quake efforts is shifting from rescue to relief. International and Salvadoran donations of food and clothes are pouring in, even as officials are preparing for the uncertainties that may lie ahead.

"There have been over 45,000 people evacuated, and that number could increase because there are areas of the country where we haven't even been able to get to," says Herbert Chinchilla, director of operations of the National Emergency Committee, which is organizing the rescue and relief efforts. "At least 15,000 of those have been relocated to camps."

With more than 1,000 aftershocks recorded since Saturday, officials are evacuating people from quake-weakened homes and areas still prone to landslides. There are around 100 camps or shelters, although some house only a dozen people.

Cafetalon, on the other hand, is massive. "It is incredible how the population here has grown," says Erick Murcia, a volunteer. "[On Monday] morning there were 3,000 people here, by afternoon there were over 6,500."

At Cafetalon, Mexican soldiers prepare and serve giant vats of food to thousands at a time, psychologists offer counseling, and an information desk provides updates on those who are still missing.

Hermogenez Valencia came here the day after his home was leveled by the quake. He says camp life takes a little getting used to and people are living in close quarters, but it's also nice in some ways.

"We all understand what happened. And that is why we are happy to be here, because our family is whole and together and we have what we need," he says.

The tents and lean-tos are organized in rows in the vast field according to the neighborhoods the residents lived in before the quake, so families and neighbors can be together. Already the camp feels, in some ways, like a neighborhood.

Some people brought their dogs and hens with them. Others have a spare chair or a musical instrument in their tents.

But the camp still has no running water and limited bottled water, the most common complaint. Even essential supplies like mattresses, toilet paper, and toothpaste are in short supply.

Despite the outpouring of support in the form of material and food aid, Mr. Chinchilla says -given the sheer dimension of the disaster - "nothing is enough."

The task ahead is daunting. Officials soon plan to evaluate homes, infrastructure, and services in each of the evacuated neighborhoods to determine which areas and homes are safe for use.

But for people like Miguel Angel Vasquez, the wait could be even longer. His house is still standing, but uninhabitable due to the fissures in land below it.

"We don't have the means to get another home," he says from inside the tent that is home for now.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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