An earthquake, revisited

TAMBOR, Costa Rica — After pulling into this small town a couple of bus rides northwest of the capital San Jose, it seems like the words are on everyone’s lips. When asked how to find the construction site for their soon-to-be neighbors, locals will practically finish your sentence: “You mean the Habitat for Humanity site? It’s a few hundred meters down the road,” a shopkeeper says.

From the church, walk down the street, turn left at the coffee plantation, onto a dirt road muddied by the onset of rainy season, and you’ll find Habitat volunteers and staff busy at work, lifting sheets of cement and sliding them carefully into building frames. They’re creating homes for about a dozen families desperate for housing. This project is just one of the settlements expected to provide a new start for hundreds of families who were displaced by the Jan. 8 earthquake.

This week marks half a year since the earth shook the provinces Heredia and Alajuela, where Tambor is located, hard enough to topple homes and businesses and crumble roads and bridges, killing as many as 30 people. The quake could be felt in San Jose, too, but nobody in the cramped capital predicted the devastation it caused in the smaller communities closer to the epicenter, about 30 kilometers north near Poas Volcano.

Almost 1,000 families need to be relocated but, six months after from the quake, fewer than 40 have moved into their new homes, according to Housing Minister Clara Zomer. Although projects have been slated for 265 families, Zomer says her office is racing to find homes for the remainder, which hasn’t been easy.

Many residents from some of the hardest-hit towns simply don’t want to leave the area in which their families have lived for generations. But scientists deemed swaths of the earthquake zone uninhabitable. And in some areas, there are zoning laws that prohibit new home construction. Now, Zomer says, the government's Reconstruction Commission is at a crossroads in its efforts to re-house the earthquake victims.

“We’re working together with residents and municipal governments to locate the most adequate places for those families and to see if it’s necessary to change the county zoning law,” Zomer said.

The earthquake caused home damages of nearly $35.8 million, and infrastructure damage of nearly $15 million, according to an assessment released this week by the government's post-earthquake reconstruction commission. And that's not counting the damaged Cariblanco power plant, a loss of $365.5 million. All told, those losses combined with damage to the environment, manufacturing sector, employment and basic services mean the country is looking at a whopping earthquake bill of nearly $502 million.

Tambor was one of the fortunate towns in Alajuela province that wasn't totaled during the quake.

The Mixed Institute for Social Aid, a state-run agency, has been financing the monthly rent for hundreds of families awaiting relocation. Meanwhile, the National Housing Mortgage Bank is using more than $12 million in World Bank relief money to provide credit to help alleviate the housing problem, Zomer said. Foreign governments, charities, businesses and private donors have also assisted in the recovery.

The 685-square-meter housing plot in Tambor, for example, was a $210,000 donation from beverage company Florida Bebidas. And employees from the company — which owns the national brewery — will pitch in as volunteers to help erect the homes.

The families that lost almost everything in the quake are also helping to build the new community. After seeing their home in San Geronimo, Alajuela, crumble, Christian Benavides and his wife Francis Mejias have been visiting the plot with their two boys, ages 2 and 11. The visits have sparked mixed emotions.

"Making a change like this is kind of strange," said 33-year-old Mejias. "For all the help we’ve gotten, all the donations, it’s been really hard to leave the town we’ve lived in our whole lives."

She added that her 11-year-old, Christian Alonso, is having a hard time adjusting to a new school, and to starting over. The day the earth shook is still fresh in his mind. "It was so scary," the boy said as his mom went on to tell of their escape.

"I was at home with both the kids, the little one was sleeping," Mejias said. "When we were trying to escape everything was falling down, a mirror crashed down at my feet, a horrible experience. You wake up and say what a trauma, and you’re still shaking."

The family waited outside in the street until emergency officials came and moved the Benavides family and 68 other people into a makeshift shelter — outdoor tents on an open soccer field. Christian Benavides said it got too cold and the campsite was evacuated. Many of those left homeless from the quake moved in with family members; others rented apartments with the help of state assistance.

"After a month we had to evacuate because of the strong winds and bad weather, the clothing and cans, everything flying all over the place," Benavides said, holding his 2-year-old son, Anderson, and gazing at his wife.

She said, "At least we survived and are moving on."

Read more on natural disasters and their aftermaths:

Sichuan earthquake one year later

Emotional aftershocks in Italy

In L'Aquila, little enthusiasm for G8 talks