Salvador will never be the same,” Cecilia de Benavides whispered,
her soft brown eyes communicating pain and resolve. “We
are a different community now. We have to organize ourselves
better and find out how we can help rebuild. We have to
have confidence in God.” The women of the Santa Elena Community
Health Project, located in Usulatan province two hours east
of San Salvador, nodded in solemn agreement. “We ask God
for everything,” said Catalina Garcia. “Without God, we
and rebuilding: These are the daunting tasks the 6.2 million
people of El Salvador are confronting following a series
of earthquakes and thousands of aftershocks. The Salvadorans’
long, arduous journey began after a quake—7.8 on the Richter
scale—visited their tiny country on an otherwise tranquil
Saturday morning, January 13, killing close to 1,000 people
and injuring many more.
one month later, another earthquake—this one with a magnitude
of 6.6—struck at the start of a workday, sending thousands
of office workers rushing into the streets in a panic and
leaving children—still traumatized from the first quake—in
tears. Only days later another quake came and then another,
smaller than the first two but adding more damage and further
fraying nerves. In the ensuing months, the threat of additional
quakes has remained strong in this Central American country
ringed by volcanic mountains.
light of the emergency created by the first earthquake,
the Catholic Church of El Salvador was officially asked
by the Salvadoran government to take the lead in local relief
efforts. Caritas of El Salvador and Catholic Relief Services
(CRS), a program of the U.S. bishops with staff in El Salvador
(as well as many other countries), are working as partners.
Anthony Messenger was among a small contingent of Catholic
press members invited by CRS to travel to the beleaguered
Central American nation following the major January earthquake.
The purpose of our four-day visit was to see relief and
reconstruction efforts firsthand, talk with local people
and return to tell the story.
major seismic shifts were concentrated in the southern half
of the country east and west of the capital of San Salvador.
They knocked out much of Salvador’s national water and power
systems. Hospitals ran out of beds, blood and medicine.
Key highways were split open “like a loaf of bread,” according
to one government official. Landslides and mudslides following
the earthquakes added yet another dimension to the destruction,
burying untold numbers of people, demolishing homes and
making roads impassable.
cities and relief camps sprang up overnight. Many people
chose to sleep in the streets, fearful of another temblor
or, at least, a major aftershock. The school year, which
usually begins in mid-January, was indefinitely suspended.
Right Out of the Gate
hours of the first earthquake, CRS and Caritas workers were
in the field assessing needs, developing a plan and implementing
a common response. Their immediate efforts included providing
safe water, food and plastic sheeting for temporary housing.
the days passed, it was clear that the number one challenge
facing the people and CRS was reconstructing houses of a
more permanent nature than before. Since St. Anthony
Messenger’s visit in late January, each subsequent earthquake
or aftershock has only complicated relief efforts, but housing
remains the primary and pressing concern.
the earthquakes and aftershocks have generated increasingly
grim, though imprecise, statistics. All told, the temblors
left an estimated 1,500 people dead, at least 6,000 persons
injured and more than one million people homeless. Approximately
200,000 houses—one in five—were either destroyed or damaged;
many of them were made of mud and adobe, and most were located
in rural communities and villages. Many people remain unaccounted
for. All told, about 20 percent of the Salvadoran people,
mostly the poor, were rendered homeless by this series of
earthquakes and aftershocks. Hundreds of churches and chapels,
vital gathering centers in El Salvador, also lie in ruins.
Reaching Out for Help
and catastrophe are nothing new in El Salvador, a country
where almost 50 percent of the population was living below
the poverty line before the series of temblors struck. The
last two decades alone offer a sobering litany: the assassination
in 1980 of their beloved archbishop, Oscar Romero (and many
priests, catechists and other lay workers); a powerful earthquake
in 1986; a 12-year civil war that killed an estimated 75,000
civilians before peace accords were signed in 1992; the
ravages of Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
the past, Salvadorans have turned to faith, family and neighbors—and,
as needed, to the worldwide community—to see them through
difficult times. But this time direct help from the international
community is an essential ingredient to help them recover
and rebuild, according to Gino Lofredo, country representative
for CRS in El Salvador.
the first temblor, the Salvadoran government saw reconstruction
occurring within several months, Lofredo explained. But
with the second powerful earthquake came a new timetable
and the need for a wider network of support. “The immediate
emergency will go on through June or July,” he said, “but
the reconstruction may last several years—two or three at
the least.” Others speak of as many as 10 years or even
20. “Much will depend on outside contributions. It will
also depend on political conditions within the country,”
Catholic Relief Services’ best efforts—no matter how extensive—will
only be a small part of the gigantic task of rebuilding
material, spiritual and psychological conditions,” he said
following the second earthquake. “The people of El Salvador
are the true and the only protagonists in the country’s
unfolding history,” he noted, reflecting Catholic Relief
Services’ emphasis on encouraging local participation.
Salvadorans themselves will take the lead in rewriting their
own history in the coming months and years, Catholic Relief
Services is committed to working alongside them. It has
been doing so since arriving in the country just over 40
the decades, CRS programs have focused on developing long-term
food security; improving basic civil, legal and human rights;
helping to improve living conditions for Salvador’s many
poor; offering emergency assistance during the civil war;
organizing conflict transformation projects following the
war in an effort to restore faith and community; developing
agriculture and micro-enterprise programs; organizing health-care
programs designed to reduce the high incidence of infant
Working Against the Clock
for now, CRS faces a multitude of immediate challenges in
its efforts to respond to the Salvadoran nation. When St.
Anthony Messenger visited El Salvador, the focus was
on rebuilding the thousands of destroyed or damaged homes
ahead of the rainy season, which typically arrives in late
April or early May. Even in the best of times, the change
of seasons often brings more infections, colds and other
illnesses. Two months before the rains were expected to
arrive, the government had identified close to 300 areas
at high risk for flooding and landslides. Thus, farm production
as well as existing housing are at risk.
new earthquake and/or aftershock brings with it new questions
and practical complications. Should the efforts of the people
to rebuild their houses be halted or slowed down as the
rainy season approaches and until it is safe for people
to live indoors again? Should reconstruction of houses replace
and duplicate the substandard houses that existed before
or offer more dignified living conditions? How can the Salvadoran
people regain the will to live and struggle for a better
life and future for their children?
are a small people hoping for help,” said Francisco Pineda,
a member of the Emergency Central Committee at Santa Maria
Ostuma Parish in the town of San Pedro Nonualco. The committee
was formed immediately after the first quake damaged almost
85 percent of the homes in the area.
have thousands of people waiting for help,” he told our
group during a break in the committee meeting. “We have
young people and the elderly sleeping out in the open. To
recover financially is not going to be easy. I hope you
take this message home and that people can help in any way
possible,” said Pineda, whose home also suffered damage.
are a small town of 8,500, but we feel the pain of what
has happened,” added Mario Adonay Ovato, San Pedro Nonualco’s
mayor. “The message you take back is very important for
us, the message that we are suffering here.” He spoke of
contacts already made with the German Embassy and a church
in Italy. “We always have hope, but we are suffering here,”
of the suffering was also apparent among the parishioners
of San Luis Talpa, east of San Salvador. Father Gabriel
Chajon, a native of Guatemala, serves as pastor of a sprawling
parish of 24,000 people, half of whom suffered serious losses
in the first earthquake. One of them, Catalina Aguillar,
was living under plastic sheeting. “This is my house,” the
young woman said, pointing to rubble. “This was it,”
Father Chajon gently corrected. As he prepared to leave,
he promised to return the following day with more plastic
sheeting to help with temporary housing for his parishioners.
Suffering, Yes, But Hope, Too
suffering is everywhere in El Salvador these days, but so
Eisen is a U.S. citizen who lives in El Salvador and works
with young Salvadorans on behalf of CRISPAZ, a faith-based
organization with headquarters in Boston. “It’s been amazing
to see how people have reorganized their priorities,” he
said in an e-mail letter following additional quakes in
own priorities have also changed. “No longer do little things
that used to cause us concern and headaches seem so relevant.
We live on a day-to-day basis, giving thanks that we are
still alive, sharing time and material resources with each
other. We are not thinking about tomorrow because tomorrow
doesn’t exist, and we might not make it there.”
the quakes “have wreaked havoc on the psyche of this country,”
Eisen reported, “the Salvadoran people go to work and to
the market; they go out to eat; they go to dances; they
play sports. I continue to be amazed at how the Salvadoran
people continue with life. Or, at least, they give it their
John Ricard, S.S.J., of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida,
who serves as chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services,
saw amazing resilience during his two-day trip to El Salvador,
only days after the first earthquake. While visiting the
rural community of Santiago de Maria not far from San Salvador,
Bishop Ricard found a community “on the road to recovery.
People were on the mend when I saw them.”
celebrating Mass at a packed cathedral in the nation’s capital,
he was touched by the deep faith evident in the congregation.
“I have admiration for the Salvadoran people’s resilience
and forbearance,” he told St. Anthony Messenger in
a telephone interview.
visit to El Salvador was meant to express “the solidarity
of the American Catholic community with the people of El
Salvador in their time of suffering and need.” It is the
mission of CRS, said Bishop Ricard, “to give hope to people
in need wherever they are suffering around the world. But,”
he said, “there is a special bond we share with the people
of El Salvador. They are our neighbors.”
Theodore McCarrick (then an archbishop) of Washington, D.C.,
whose two-day visit to El Salvador in early February overlapped
that of St. Anthony Messenger, brought with him the
personal love and concern of the estimated 100,000 members
of the Salvadoran community. They are a key component in
his archdiocese and are working even harder than before
to send financial support to their family members at home.
McCarrick toured many damaged Salvadoran villages, communities
and churches in El Salvador over a 48-hour period just weeks
before he was to receive the red hat as a new cardinal of
the Church. Again and again, he was struck by the unlikely
combination: the precariousness of life in El Salvador alongside
the deep faith of a suffering people.
his encounters with ordinary people and in his official
visits with Church and government leaders, including Salvadoran
President Francisco Flores, Cardinal McCarrick stressed
his personal prayers and solidarity. He also brought the
concern of the members of his flock in Washington, D.C.,
particularly those with Salvadoran roots. He saw firsthand
the horrors of the January 13 earthquake in the coffee-growing
area of western El Salvador. “This is not just one more
disaster,” he said later. “This has affected the whole country,”
a country only a short distance from the United States.
isn’t just about the increasing chasm between the rich and
poor, but the opportunity to grow together. We are one continent,”
Cardinal McCarrick added, stressing the importance of solidarity
Extraordinary Circumstances, Extraordinary Measures
his tasks upon returning, Cardinal McCarrick vowed, would
be to press for “temporary protected status” for Salvadorans
living in the United States, some of them illegal immigrants
who might otherwise be subject to deportation. Such status
is often granted to citizens of countries who would face
special difficulties if they returned home, whether because
of dangers from conflict or environmental disasters.
one week of Cardinal McCarrick’s return, a special appeal
was officially made by the U.S. bishops to Attorney General
John Ashcroft, asking that this status be granted in light
of the “extraordinary temporary conditions” existing in
early March, President George W. Bush met with El Salvador’s
president, Francisco Flores. Bush agreed to grant “temporary
protected status” to as many as 150,000 Salvadorans living
illegally in the United States, allowing them to remain
in the country and work legally for up to 18 months. This
will permit them to continue to send a portion of their
wages home to El Salvador for ongoing recovery efforts.
Before the earthquakes, U.S.-based Salvadorans were sending
back $1.7 billion per year to their families. That figure
is now expected to rise.
the end of February of this year, Catholic Relief Services,
headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland, had received over
$1 million in donations from individuals, parish groups
and others. Additional funds were coming from other private
donors and organizations and through the U.S. government’s
Agency for International Development. Foreign governments—ranging
from Mexico and Colombia to Taiwan and China—also came forward
with funds and supplies.
more earthquakes and aftershocks hit El Salvador over time,
the need for more support—material and moral—grew exponentially.
By the end of February, the government of El Salvador needed
an estimated $2.8 billion in reconstruction loans; only
$800 million had been secured.
El Salvador will
never be the same, but its people remain its strongest resource.
One of them is Candelaria Roble, a woman whose lined face
suggests she is in her 70s. In January she saw the walls
and roof of her house collapse around her. How, she was
asked, does she go on, and where does she find the strength
to continue? “God gave me a strong heart,” she replied simply.
the earthquakes and aftershocks continue to rumble throughout
El Salvador—the land named after the Savior—the resourcefulness
of the Salvadoran people is being tested yet again. So is
the generosity of their brothers and sisters throughout
more information, contact Catholic Relief Services, P.O.
Box 17090, Baltimore, MD 21203-7090 or visit their Web site
at http://www. CatholicRelief.org
or call 1-800-625-2220.
Ball is the managing editor of Every
and a member of the Internet staff for this Web site. Her
recent articles for this magazine have been on Kosovo, the
Irish famine and the peace process in Northern Ireland.