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Pisco: A shell of its former self

This Peruvian town offers a warning of how earthquake recovery doesn't always proceed as promised.

Many streets in Pisco look like this, two and a half years after a killer earthquake hit the Peruvian coastal town. (Tyler Bridges/GlobalPost)

PISCO, Peru — Rescue workers were pulling cadavers from the wreckage of a killer earthquake here two and a half years ago when President Alan Garcia came and promised that his government would promptly rebuild the shattered coastal town.

Garcia's words were broadcast worldwide and the international community mobilized its support.

Yet today Pisco remains a shell of its former self.

Most Pisco residents still live in their damaged homes, where jagged wall scars provide a daily reminder of the 7.9-magnitude earthquake that killed 596 people on Aug. 15, 2007. Thousands of people live in drywall shacks — covered by tarpaulin or straw matting — that replaced their leveled homes.

"We're still living among the ruins in Pisco," said Alejandrina Cabrera, as she stood on the concrete slab of her former home. She now lives in a one-room drywall "home" donated by the Turkish government.

Cabrera and other residents are left to wonder why the rebuilding process didn't move forward as promised. Pisco's plight shows the difficulties of ensuring a smooth reconstruction after the glare of international attention has shifted elsewhere.

And a month after Haiti's devastating quake, the question looms: how does it avoid the same fate?

"The [government] response has been slow, and poor communication has dogged the effort from day one," said Ascension Martinez, head of operations in Peru for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. She spent two years working in Pisco after the earthquake.

Pisco is a three-hour drive south of Lima and had 130,000 residents in August 2007. About 18 percent of the population has moved away since then, the mayor's office estimates.

Visions of turning Pisco into a vibrant fishing community — one that would resist any future earthquake — have yielded to the less lofty ambition of getting the town back on its feet again, someday.

The government has only now begun work on another hospital to replace the one that was destroyed. Forty percent of the schools remain shuttered. Fifty percent of the homes have functioning sewage systems. City Hall operates out of temporary structures on a dirt lot. Most residents remain unemployed or scratching out a living fishing or selling goods on the street.

Corruption rumors about misuse of government money run rampant and public frustration at the slow pace is rising.

Signs of the destruction abound everywhere.

On Alejandrina Cabrera's block, for example, only three of the 30 simple homes have been rebuilt.

Lopez del Alarcon Street, 10 blocks away, mirrors this scene.