San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Waiting for Place to Call Home

RIO CUARTO, Heredia – In a fluttery pink dress, 5-year-old Helen Marín runs hand-in-hand with a playmate across the grassy courtyard of the Río Cuarto primary school. Her father, Freddy Marín, 28, watches from a breezeway.

Three weeks ago, Marín pulled Helen and her mother, Karen López, from the wreckage of a small restaurant that collapsed under a landslide caused by the 6.2 magnitude earthquake, whose epicenter was almost directly below their village of Cinchona. At least 10 others died in the restaurant.

“Another boy arrived to help me, but there were aftershocks almost every minute. He just looked up at the earth above as it was shaking, and took off. Poor kid,” recalls Marín, a Nicaraguan who had lived in Cinchona for 12 years.

López’s cries guided him as he dug through the rubble. He holds up his hands to show where his fingernail is broken in half, and points to where dirt and splinters dug under his nails.

“She told me, ‘Leave me, let me die, go save the other children.’ I told her, ‘I’m going to save you, with the help of God, and then we will go,’” Marín says.

The family and López’s three other children from a previous relationship now sleep in Room 1 at the Río Cuarto school, alongside several other families. They are among 68 people, nearly all displaced from Cinchona, staying at the school-turned-shelter.

Cinchona’s entire population of about 500 is now scattered among 19 state-run shelters or living with friends and family in other towns. At Río Cuarto, neighbors sleep side-by-side on the foam mattresses handed out by the government in classrooms decorated for schoolchildren.

These families will not be able to return to Cinchona, which has been declared a total loss. Though some buildings are still standing, government engineers determined the ground is too unstable for anyone to live on.

Marín says he has heard of plans to buy a large plot of property and rebuild the community there. If not? He shrugs and rubs his head.

More than 2,800 people were initially displaced by the Jan. 8 earthquake, which killed 23 people and left another seven missing and presumed dead. The number of evacuees still sleeping in the government shelters – a combination of schools, churches and community halls, as well as a pair of tent camps – dropped below 900 this week.

The number staying at the Río Cuarto shelter reached as high as 90 within three days of the quake, said Yeimy Araya, the 18-year-old Río Cuarto Red Cross volunteer who oversees day-to-day operations at the shelter.

Starting at 5 a.m., volunteer housewives from Río Cuarto show up at the school to begin making breakfast from the stacks of donated food kept in a storage room at the Red Cross station across the street. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served by hairnet-and apron-clad women.

Like a number of other shelters, the Río Cuarto school has encountered a few freeloaders – people who were not victims of the earthquake but who slipped in for the free food and clothing, Araya says. The government has since cracked down and compiled lists of all the evacuees staying at each shelter.

The shelters are also victim to a “growing wave of theft and misuse of clothing and food,” so officials have increased security, according to a CNE statement this week.

The increased security appears not to have arrived to Río Cuarto, or at least not by Wednesday, as the food storage, which faces a public road, occasionally was left open and unattended, and no police were to be seen at the shelter.

In the main breezeway in front of the school and in Room 2, officials with the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS), a government social agency, sit behind a few child-sized desks as evacuees stand in slowmoving lines. In the classroom, officials ask the evacuees to list all their lost belongings, while in the breezeway they hand out information on a government program that will pay the deposit and first three months rent for families that move out of the shelter.

IMAS is also giving families kitchen stoves, beds and other basic household items. Families out of work can classify for IMAS financial aid starting at ¢80,000 ($145). President Oscar Arias has proposed a bill that would allow the government to buy land to build new homes, and provide subsidies to displaced families that worked in tourism or at dairy farms.

On the other side of the classrooms, an Evangelical Christian youth group has rounded up the younger children to play games on a small concrete basketball court.

The group, from the neighboring town of Venecia, arrived Wednesday morning in matching green T-shirts and jeans, bearing a pair of sugary cakes and two-liter bottles of soda.

A short time later, the high-energy children’s music, blaring out of a portable stereo, softens, and the kids are divided into smaller groups and seated in the school’s small wooden chairs in a breezeway.

Lizeth Mejías, the group’s adult leader, sits in front of four children, including Hélen, and begins asking them how they  feel about the earthquake. As she drawstheir answers and traumas out, one of the older boys begins to cry, and a green-shirted teen with crisply gelled hair puts his hands on the boy’s shoulder, bows his head and begins to pray out loud at his side. The scene is repeated all around him, with the youth group teens hugging and hovering over the young children.

Mejías leans forward in her chair, head low and eyes squeezed shut as she cups Hélen’s face in both hands, praying rapidly and intensely.

“We ask you, Lord, in the name of Jesus Christ, you who has control over everything and for whom nothing is impossible, that you come and heal, Holy Spirit, giving this child strength, the strength to grow in wisdom,” she says, as Hélen opens and closes one eye.

An older teen in a green T-shirt sits behind Mejías, crying as tears drip off his nose into his lap. Mejías, holding back tears herself, says they plan to visit other shelters, and thinks they will probably return to Rio Cuarto again.

When asked later this week, government officials said teams of psychologists conducted an initial evaluation of the mental health and psychological trauma of the children at the different shelters.

“We are making some adjustments to the evaluation and will be developing a methodology for attending to the children,” said Mauricio Medrano, the technical director for Costa Rica’s Child Welfare Office (PANI).

“It needs to be understood that we are in a transition phase. In two or three weeks the evacuees will be moved to two larger camps. We can’t begin to give them psychological treatment if they are going to be relocated.”

Public Health Minister María Luísa Avila says the government is planning on building at least 250 temporary homes for displaced families in two communities not far from the earthquake zone where families can live while they figure a more permanent solution.

A Chilean-based NGO called Un Techo Para Mi País (A Roof For My Country) has already said it will build 200 of the houses, if they can find sponsors to fund the construction at a price of $1,000 each. The United Nations Habitat Settlement Program (UN-HABITAT) and the National Training Institute (INA) will also build houses, Avila said.

Later that afternoon, Marín sits outside Room 1. He says he spends his days washing clothes, or watching the news or a soccer game on the shelter’s single TV, which sits silently at the end of the breezeway.

“You wait for the afternoon to go by, and the tomorrow is another day,” he says.


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