Saturday, August 25, 2007

After the Earthquake

Amidst the inevitable chaos, neglect of people living off the beaten track, and one or two engregious incidents of corrupt behaviour, Peru appeared to do a relatively effective job of responding to last week's earthquake

Three days after the tremor, on Saturday the 18th, local news sources reported a general sense of panic and desperation in Pisco and Ica, where people were living in improvised shelters made from sticks and sheets of plastic.

There was also widespread insecurity. As was seen in New Orleans, actual criminal acts mixed with desperate quake victims looting ruins and breaking into empty shops to find food and supplies, heightening the sense of lawlessness . There were reports of organised attacks on convoys bringing emergency help to the area, and when trucks arrived most were set upon with desperation by people who were ravenous for food and water.

In response, the government increased the number of military units in the Pisco area from 400 to 1,000, sending army, navy and air force units in addition to more than 2,000 police. The Minister of Defense, Allan Wagner, reported that by Saturday morning the assaults on vehicles bringing aid had been 'neutralized'. But reports of looting still drifted in.

On Sunday 19th, Peru's civil defence agency Indeci announced that 503 people were dead, 1,042 injured, and 33,939 families had suffered damaged or destroyed homes. The agency also reported that 2,800 tonnes of clothing, food, shelter, and other goods had been delivered. Statistics varied: the regional president of Ica, Rómulo Triveño, claimed that 45,000 homes had been damaged or destroyed in Ica alone, affecting 253,000 people .

Seventy-two hours after the earthquake, electricity and water were being restored, though this was a slow task in the areas of Pisco and Ica most affected by the quake. In Pisco, where less than 10% of the city had electricity, emergency and medical operations were being powered by generators.

Other Peruvian regions and municipalities rushed to organise aid, and the National Stadium in Lima was the designated centre for collection of donated goods. Thousands of limeños headed to the stadium to give clothing, tinned food and useful equipment, while at least 500 volunteers worked round the clock to collect and pack the donations.

The Peruvian earthquake was also a popular international cause, and offers of help flooded in. In addition to the countries that had already given help, by Monday Mexico, Ecuador, Panama, Brazil and Italy had also dispatched aid. Chile sent further assistance, while Argentina set up an 'air bridge' to Pisco. The Mormon church (with 430,000 Peruvian members) promised a 747 loaded with supplies from Salt Lake City while the Pope himself sent $200,000.

But for people off the beaten track, help was slow to arrive. Reporters from La Republica found that in the settlement of El Bosque, just 15 minutes from the centre of Pisco, people complained that after three days they had not yet received any assistance. On the Wari-Liberatadores highway inland from Pisco to Huancavelica, settlements where the majority of dwellings were destroyed had not seen any help by Sunday.

President of the Council of Minister Jorge del Castillo justified the lack of help for outlying areas, saying that it was necessary to 'prioritize the places worst affected by the earthquake'. Some blame could be directed to the authorities for not having better systems of distribution. But people's inability to reach central areas where aid was being distributed, or insecurity about leaving their few remaining belongings for fear of robbery, reflect everyday reality in Peru.

Meanwhile, the government was looking ahead to future issues of reconstruction. Minister of Labor Susan Pinilla announced on Saturday 18 that a programme called Construyendo Peru would be set up to begin reconstruction work. People affected by the quake would be given priority for the 4,000 jobs, the first week's wages paid in advance.

With the need to spend large amounts of aid money quickly, there's always a risk of misappropriation and corruption. Minister del Castillo announced that the government would establish 'mechanisms of transparency' to keep clear account of national and international aid.

Of course, no mechanism can prevent the dishonesty of individuals, as was seen when a Civil Defense employee in the Lima barrio of La Victoria was caught with half a tonne of donated goods that she'd taken home for 'safe keeping'.

In the local media there were many critics of the government response as delayed, disorganized and haphazard. To be fair, some of the defects which exacerbated the quake's effects -- precarious building construction, ancient water and electricity infrastructure, isolation of people in peripheral areas -- are chronic ones that can't be blamed on any one administation.

But the most notable feature was the outpouring of good will and solidarity. Temporarily, the different sectors of Peruvian society -- central and local government, private companies, civil society groups and individuals -- were united at least in the wish to alleviate the suffering of those less fortunate.

If only, as several columnists wrote, that attitude could be sustained past times of crisis.

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