Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Those of you who know me well know that I don't do well with personal memories. Not that I don't have them, but I just don't have the same kind of recall on things that have happened to me as I do with far more pertinent information, like:

  • The longest sustained flight by a chicken: 327 ft
  • Etymology of the word "gringo" (Mexican American war, told to US soldiers by Mexicans encouraging the "green" to "go".)
  • Voter-history for Minneapolis Wards.

Like I said, useful information.

That's why I was suprized a few minutes ago--while I was writing the previous post, actually--to remember I have been in a situation similar to what happened in New Orleans. Not as bad as far as destruction, but certainly a major natural disaster.

In 2001 I went to El Salvador with a group from college, intending to spend 2 weeks travelling the country and talking with people about El Salvador's transition from civil war to democracy over the preceeding decade. That plan was derailed when, about 24 hours after our flight landed and while we were sitting in the chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated, an earthquake measuring 7.6 hit the capital of San Salvador. (This is sizeably larger than the earthquake that hit during the '89 World Series--about 5 times stronger.)

The earthquake lasted for 50 seconds, and it made the ground shake so much it sounded like a train was passing. But it was just the ground moving. Try and imagine that. When we got outside a minute later, there was no damage in our area, but our driver had the radio on, and reports were already starting to come in about landslides, and collapsed buildings, and people having died.

Once the dust settled, we learned the extent of the damage--at least the official numbers. This is a summary from a website that lists many of the major earthquakes and eruptions throughout recorded history.
Jan. 13, El Salvador: magnitude 7.7 earthquake set off some 185 landslides across El Salvador; at least 850 died and nearly 100,000 houses were destroyed.
Without meaning to sound trite, the devastation of the earthquake cannot be conveyed in those summary numbers. Hundreds of thousands of people were homeless. But really, everyone was homeless. After an earthquake where houses have cracked and crumbled all around, even if one's house is still standing, there is no sleeping inside. There is no inside at all, if it can be avoided. It doesn't matter that there are insects, or rain, or the ground is muddy. It's better to sleep in those conditions than to have an aftershock happen at night, and the whole family die if the roof comes down. It's happened.

There were landslides all over the capital city, and all over the country. But they were worst in San Salvador. Because poor people build ramshackle enclaves up the extremely steep sides of hills. Think Brazillian favelas, or camps of countryside Chinese on the edges of Shanghai or Beijing. Now imagine them going straight up hillsides rather than across plains and swamps. And now image what happens when mother nature shakes all the loose rock the huts are built on down the mountain. Yeah. Bad.

What absolutely amazed me was how fast the aid came in. The earthquake happened on the 13th, in the middle of the day. I don't remember if it was the 14th or the 15th, but on one of those days our little gaggle of american college students traipsed down to one of the major HQ's for the aid organizations, and there were OxFam, the Red Cross/Crescent, and half-a-dozen aid organizations I'd never heard of. With material. I mean everything you need to build refugee camps, sanitize water, build emergency sewer systems, set up clinics, build temporary shelters. Everything. Certainly not enough for every person affected by the quake, but an amazing amount of supplies for what had to have been an instantaneous response.

There were also SUVs. Wow were there SUVs. None of this Cadillac or Lexus crap. I'm talking LandRovers with sealed bottoms and snorkel exhausts, Nissans with metal-frame seats and a portable emergency room in the back looking like it came straight from the Sahara. Vehicles designed for the business end of a disaster, not the Emmys.

All of these came from somewhere else. They weren't hanging around in El Salvador waiting for something to happen. They had come in from Britain, Turkey, and Japan. From the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. And they were there. They got there fast, and they knew what they were doing.

After days of watching the Katrina fall-out, I guess I'm left in wonder. I wonder how is it that the United States can not only not be prepared to begin ministering to the victims of an event like Katrina, given several days warning that it is coming. I wonder how it is that the U.S., with a government that is supposedly functioning, can't coordinate aid offers from governments and organizations around the world. How is it that the United States, with millions of miles of paved highway, hundreds of international airports, and dozens more airforce bases and naval yards, can't get help to those who need it? How can El Salvador, a country the size and population of Massachussets, a country that 10 years previously had been engaged in all-out civil war, with one major highway--the PanAm highway--and one major international airport and one of the lowest per-capita incomes in Central America, how can it get aid to so many of it's people so quickly; coordinate with dozens of international organizations and governments; and ensure that a natural disaster doesn't become a broader human disaster?

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