Pisco: A shell of its former self

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.

Delia Gihua, a 50-year-old unemployed street vendor, waters the dirt street in front of her home there every morning, to keep down the dust.

Gihua pointed to a crack in her home's facade and said she would need $1,000 to replace the structure.

Gihua's next-door neighbor, Corina Tipiani, said that she, like many Pisco residents, has received a one-time $2,100 payment from the government meant to spur reconstruction. But Tipiani said she needs another $6,500 to rebuild her home.

"I feel betrayed by the government," Tipiani said.

Jacobo Ocharan, who worked in Pisco after the earthquake for Oxfam America, said governments in every disaster-struck country wrestle with how much the public should shoulder the cost of replacing private homes and businesses.

The issue becomes especially acute in places like Pisco — or Haiti — where many of the people lived a hand-to-mouth existence before the disaster and built flimsy homes on land they didn't legally own.

The Peruvian government has insisted that it will make the $2,100 payment and a $6,000 low-interest rebuilding loan only to dwellers with clear title to the land they occupy.

Only 30 percent of Pisco's homes had land titles before the earthquake, said Jorge Luis Pineda, a spokesman for Pisco's mayor, Juan Mendoza.

Government work has since pushed that number to 60 percent but means that nearly half of the population remains ineligible for reconstruction assistance.

"Recovery time is very much related to the pre-disaster situation," Ocharan said by telephone from Boston. "A country with poor governance will recover more slowly."

The key from the outset, said Martinez of the Red Cross, was engaging locals in reconstructing plans and then keeping them abreast of the progress.

Rebuilding several high-profile sites would have inspired confidence, she added.

"Without transparency, rumors start," Martinez said by telephone from Panama. "That builds distrust, which spreads unhappiness."

Infighting among different levels of government has hampered recovery efforts, added Mark Ghilarducci, a disaster expert with James Lee Witt Associates.

"There wasn't a link between the priorities of the national and local governments," said Ghilarducci, by telephone from Sacramento.

Pineda blamed the slow recovery on the central government bureaucracy.

"We'd like to do things more rapidly, but the money comes from the central government," Pineda said, adding that many residents wasted the $2,100 government payment.

In turn, Felix Doroteo, the Pisco-based representative of FORSUR, the agency created by the Garcia administration to oversee reconstruction, blamed local and government state officials.

"We have money ready for projects," Doroteo said. In one case, he said, the Pisco government has failed to begin paving a three-mile avenue even though it has had the $2 million in hand for months.

Doroteo said the central government in March will begin paving streets and sidewalks in a 15-block radius in downtown Pisco. The earthquake's third anniversary is the completion target date.

But this belated accomplishment will leave most homeowners still living in damaged homes — and leave key promises unmet.

International aid groups and even government officials seem to have given up on the plan to ensure that rebuilt homes would consist of stronger material — the homes that collapsed were made of sun-dried mud and straw — because doing so would be more costly.

They have clearly abandoned plans to insist that any rebuilding take place only in neighborhoods less prone to destruction — a key issue in an earthquake-prone area — after opposition from homeowners who said they had nowhere else to go.

Nearly half of those who died were attending a service in Pisco's 18th-century cathedral, on the main square. The site is now a vacant lot, save for a small, wooden cross.

"The government says they are going to do more things," said Helibeth Granda, an ice cream vendor in front of the cathedral. "But who can believe them?