San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Picking Up the Pieces

With backs bent to the tropical sun, rescue workers and volunteers this week pulled three more bodies from the raw earth of a landslide that killed at least a dozen people who were eating lunch in a small restaurant in the village of Cinchona.

Their names – Jeffrey Zamora, Francisco Zamora and Daniela Zamora – were added to the list of people killed Jan. 8 by an earthquake, a list now 23 names long, and their names were removed from the list of missing persons, who now number 11.

Eight days after the magnitude 6.2 earthquake hit the mountainous region northwest of San José, the full scope of the disaster is just beginning to come into focus.

More than 2,300 people are sleeping on thin foam mattresses in temporary shelters in churches, schools and tent camps set up in campo soccer fields.

President Oscar Arias this week declared a state of emergency to free up emergency funds and ordered a period of national mourning Jan. 12-16, when flags are flown at half-staff and festivals are prohibited. As a result, the popular Palmares festival has been postponed (see Weekend).

Arias recognized that the government response lacked coordination, and acknowledged that had the quake hit a major city, the toll could have been much higher.

“If it had been in an important city, in an urban area, we wouldn’t be talking about a few victims, but rather hundreds, if not thousands,” Arias said.

The government has ventured an initial estimate of $100 million in total damage. At least 10 kilometers of highway have “disappeared,” according to Public Works and Transport Minister Karla González. Entire sections of mountain roads simply slid away.

Road crews have been working to clear other sections of highway that were covered by enormous landslides and to replace three bridges also destroyed by slides.

The quake’s casualties include the Cariblanco hydroelectric power plant at San Miguel de Sarapiquí in north-central Costa Rica. The plant is full of mud and branches and will be shut down for a year, said ICE president Pedro Pablo Quirós, raising concerns of blackouts.

Under a worst-case scenario, in which the missing are found dead, the total number of fatalities would be 34, which would be less than the 48 Costa Ricans who perished in the 1991 earthquake that struck near the Caribbean city of Limón.

That, however, is little comfort for many Costa Ricans, who have suffered from heart-wrenching details recounted in newscasts, on the Internet and in newspapers, some of which have published grisly photographs.

The first known victims were two sisters, 4 and 7, who were buried together in a landslide.

This week, a mother and the two children she clutched to her chest were pulled from a landslide. Others died when their vehicles or homes were crushed by falling mountainsides, and one teenage girl reportedly died from a panic attack triggered by aftershocks Monday night.

Though less deadly than the 1991 quake, and significantly less than the 6.4 earthquake that killed at least 700 in Cartago in 1910, the Jan. 8 earthquake has tested the government’s mettle.

The National Emergency Commission (CNE) reported that at least 346 houses were destroyed, and at least another 150 are uninhabitable, all within a radius of 10 to 15 kilometers from the epicenter. One village, Cinchona, has been declared a total loss.

Residents walked for hours to return to their condemned and crumpled homes to retrieve what belongings they could carry out on their backs.

The quake struck at 1:19 p.m., 10 kilometers east of the Poás Volcano, or about 35 kilometers northwest of San José. Scientists do not believe the quake resulted from volcanic activity but rather the movement of tectonic plates along a fault line in the area. As the quake’s shock waves hit the capital city about 1:21 p.m., people hid under desks or fled from their offices and homes. Streetlights bounced. Some people screamed, some cried. In the city of Alajuela, northwest of San José, windows shattered and concrete buildings cracked.

In Fraijanes, a rural community farther north along the road to Poás Volcano, Lorena Morales was at home when the earth began to shake.

“We had to get out of the house because it was too dangerous,” she said.

A couple of days following the quake, Morales appeared resigned but optimistic as she sat under one of 13 small makeshift shelters made of plastic tarps, string and fence posts erected in the middle of a grassy field.

“There was no point after the earthquake in going back in,” she continued. “There’s no electricity, no water, and everything you own is in pieces. So we’ve been here.”

Morales lived within walking distance from the shelter where she ended up. Thousands of others, however, were left stranded along remote highways or in inaccessible mountainside villages.

Helicopters contracted by CNE or donated by private charter companies airlifted nearly 350 people from the areas worst hit by the quake. However, those choppers did not get into the air until the following morning, nearly 16 hours after the quake hit.

Among those who slept outdoors the first night were approximately 300 tourists stranded at the La PazWaterfallGardens and the Peace Lodge. Eyewitness accounts told of hundreds going without food or water and looking for shelter overnight along the highway or in the hotel’s parking lot.

Witnesses also claimed that the first helicopters to reach the area were private chartered flights that picked up only those who could afford to pay $300 to $700 per person, as well as a handful of injured people.

Reinaldo Carballo, spokesman for the CNE, said the government had no rescue helicopters of its own, and depended on those it could hire or borrow.

The United States, one of the first nations to come to Costa Rica’s aid, donated $50,000 and sent four Blackhawk helicopters from a base in Honduras to aid in the rescue efforts. Colombia sent a fifth Blackhawk as well as a military squad.

At home, the outpouring of donations of money, food, clothing, medications and time has been overwhelming, and Arias this week announced he was forming a special commission to coordinate and organize the charity efforts.

The Finance Ministry, meanwhile, is negotiating grants from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration and the Inter-American Development Bank, said Minister Guillermo Zúñiga.

Lawmakers also appear likely soon to approve a credit line from the World Bank to deal with natural disasters. The credit, awarded in November, would allow Costa Rica to borrow up to $65 million, to be repaid over 30 years at 2.25 percent interest.

With thousands of Ticos in temporary shelters, the government is beginning to turn its attention to how it will provide housing for the hundreds of families displaced by the disaster.

“We have to give people something more dignified than the tents they are staying in now,” said Housing Minister Clara Zomer.

Tico Times reporters Gillian Gillers and Meagan Robertson contributed to this story.


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