After quakes, El Salvador looks to rebuild better, more unified state

President Flores may seek additional US aid at a meeting with Bush on Friday.

Sunlight streams through the gaping holes in the roof of Raul Mena's home as he runs his hands along the network of fissures that cover the walls.

"I saved for five years to build this house - for it to be destroyed in an instant," says Mr. Mena, shaking his head and sighing. "I don't know what we are going to do. We weren't financially prepared for something like this."

As aftershocks continue to plague this Central American nation, its citizens are still reeling over a double dose of disaster caused by two earthquakes exactly a month apart. Yet some observers say the challenge of rebuilding could offer important opportunities for a country shaken not just by recent natural disasters, but also troubled by long-standing societal rifts.

"As a nation we need to reflect on what are the things that make us vulnerable and reconstruct a country that is different than the one we lived in before the first quake," says Rene Rivera, director of politics and development at the San Salvador think tank FUNDE. "There are opportunities in social, political, environmental, and economic realms."

Rebuilding El Salvador is a herculean task in a country still struggling to recover from a 12-year civil war that inflicted $2.5 billion in property damages. The 7.6 magnitude earthquake on Jan. 13, which left more than 800 dead, and the 6.6 quake a month later, which killed more than 300, have resulted in a total of $2 billion in damage, according to government estimates. At least 20 percent of the population is homeless, living in tents and lean-tos made of sheets of plastic and bamboo posts in numerous relief camps. Many say it will take at least three years to rebuild.

Meanwhile, the rainy season, expected to begin in April, is raising fears of another disaster. The government has already identified 265 areas which, after the quakes, are at high risk for flooding and landslides.

Donations have not come close to meeting needs. The government is working to get long-term bilateral and multilateral reconstruction loans, but of an estimated $2.8 billion in loans needed, so far it has secured only $800 million. Spain, the leader in reconstruction aid to El Salvador, has organized a donor meeting in Madrid in March.

The US government, some say, has not yet responded with significant aid - in sharp contrast to massive assistance during the civil war. So far, the US has committed only $10 million, but President Francisco Flores hopes to secure more at a meeting Friday in Washington with President Bush.

On the floor of Mena's ruined house lie 30 shiny sheets of corrugated metal and nine two-by-fours, materials he received from relief agencies. All over the country, earthquake victims are using similar donations to hastily put up shacks before the rainy season begins.

"The first stage is to give people temporary housing and effectively manage the relief camps, and then work on something more permanent," says Economy Minister Miguel Lacayo.

Some, however, see potential problems. "The possibility of a series of slums springing up is very real.... There are places in San Salvador where after a quake in the '60s, people built temporary houses that are still pretty much shanty towns," warns Gino Lofredo, the El Salvador representative for Catholic Relief Services. At the same time, Mr. Lofredo sees positive potential. With adequate funding, reconstruction could give communities a chance to zone adequately, resolve sewage and water problems, and build homes in lower-risk areas with materials more seismic-resistant than the adobe bricks favored in rural areas.

Rural areas have long suffered from El Salvador's tradition of highly centralized government. But since the January quake, local governments have taken on more responsibility. "Decentralization is key for reconstruction," says minister Mr. Lacayo. "Since the fourth day after the first earthquake, we have been working with mayors, channeling aid to them so they can distribute it to their communities."

Experts also say reconstruction can foster unity in a nation suffering from the bitter divisions of civil war, though no one expects the polarization between the party of the former leftist guerrilla movement and the party of the establishment to dissipate overnight. Already there are glimmers of unity. In the past, political divisions have held up approval of loans from multinational banks. Last Friday, however, Congress approved accepting debt obligations on five loans totaling $178 million, most of which will come from the Inter-American Development Bank

In the interim, earthquake victims like Mena are grappling with more immediate issues like food, shelter, and anxiety over aftershocks. "What we have going for us is that we are workers here in El Salvador, and we won't stand around with our arms crossed," he says. "We just hope that other countries will help us."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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