Amid Tragedy, Signs of Solidarity

San Salvador Archbishop Gauges Situation After Quake

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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador, JAN. 16, 2001 (
Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle bears within himself the weight of the tragedy of his city and country, the most affected by last weekend´s earthquake, and the most in need of help.

Contacted by telephone 48 hours after the tragedy, the archbishop was thinking of all those buried alive, and of the dozens of victims buried in mass graves because no one could identify them. More than 600 people are confirmed dead.

“It is very sad,” he said from his office in the archdiocese, shortly before presiding over a meeting to coordinate the Church´s aid. Yet, he noted the solidarity of the people, reflected in an endless line of cars packed with provisions, and moving toward St. Tecla, a neighborhood near the capital city, which was devastated by a gigantic landslide.

–Q: How many people live in St. Tecla?

–Archbishop Saenz: Three hundred thousand people live there. La Colina II was the most affected zone, an urban area for people who formerly lived in slums; the little houses are adjoining and are at the foot of the Balsamo Mountains. A mud and stone avalanche slid down from the nearest mountain, destroying 300 houses. It is still not known how many men, women and children are buried under it.

–Q: An additional 1,000 people are homeless. Where are they being sheltered?

–Archbishop Saenz: La Colina II urbanization has been evacuated. There could be another landslide and it is imprudent to expose the inhabitants to this danger. So, 10,000 people have had to leave their homes and are now in a large space made available by the National Eucharistic Congress.

–Q: Do they now have a roof to shelter them?

–Archbishop Saenz: At present, army soldiers are pitching military tents.

–Q: Are there enough provisions for the survivors?

–Archbishop Saenz: We will find out within the next few hours. I can say that the solidarity among the people was immediate. There is a column of cars full of provisions moving toward St. Tecla from other areas of El Salvador, to help those who have lost everything.

–Q: Did help come promptly?

–Archbishop Saenz: Yes, everyone is working: the army, civil forces. Men excavate desperately, searching for possible survivors in the rubble. An emergency committee has been established, manned by hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. We received first aid from Costa Rica and Mexico. Spain has sent excavators to remove remains and trained dogs are locating the victims´ bodies. Other dioceses of El Salvador have also mobilized. Now we must see what the needs are in order to make aid available more effectively.

–Q: There is talk of a sanitation emergency, of lack of potable water.

–Archbishop Saenz: Yes, the problems to be addressed are certainly enormous. Very many victims are being buried in mass graves because no one has come forward to identify them, and the deposit for bodies cannot contain them all.

–Q: Has the city´s monumental patrimony been damaged?

–Archbishop Saenz: There are nine parishes in St. Tecla, with 10 very large churches. Of these, five have suffered irreparable damage. As it will be impossible to repair them, they will have to be demolished. I am thinking particularly of two of them that dated back to colonial times: the Churches of the [Immaculate] Conception and of Carmen.

–Q: There are many arguments in El Salvador now, about companies that built houses so close to the mountains.

–Archbishop Saenz: What happened last Saturday must make us reflect. For the time being, I can say that the houses were too close to the foot of the mountains and this certainly was a fatal imprudence. There is also the fact that many houses in St. Tecla were only built with adobe. This explains why when the landslide happened they folded like cardboard.

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