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El Salvador: Climbing Up From the Rubble

By Judy Ball

Following the earthquakes, the Salvadoran people are rebuilding their lives, drawing on their faith. They also turn to the world community for help.

Q U I C K S C A N

Photo by
Judy Ball



"El 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 have nothing.”

Recovering 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.

Exactly 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.

In 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.

St. 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.

The 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.

Tent 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

Within 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.

As 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.

Likewise, 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

Trauma 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.

In 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.

After 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,” Lofredo added.

“But 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.

While 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 years ago.

Over 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 mortality.


Working Against the Clock

But 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.

Each 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?

“We 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.

“We 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.

“We 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,” he reemphasized.

Evidence 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

The suffering is everywhere in El Salvador these days, but so is hope.

Matthew 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 late February.

His 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.”

While 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 best attempt.”

Bishop 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.”

Later 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.

His 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.”

Cardinal 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.

Cardinal 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.

In 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.

“Globalization 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 between neighbors.


Extraordinary Circumstances, Extraordinary Measures

Among 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.

Within 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 El Salvador.

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.

By 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.

As 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.


Moving Forward

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.

As 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 the globe.

For 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.


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Judy Ball is the managing editor of Every Day Catholic 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.



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