In Colombia, Desperation Breeds Chaos
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 28, 1999; Page A19
CALARCA, Colombia, Jan. 27 – As she stood under a light rain today clasping a crucifix around her neck, Inez Corre trembled as she grappled with the idea that her simple but satisfying life had disintegrated.
When a powerful earthquake struck western Colombia on Monday afternoon, she lost her 23-year-old son, whose head was crushed by falling concrete as he sprinted from a neighbor's home in this mountain town. This morning, Corre's damaged house collapsed while she was outside cooking breakfast, leaving her and her young daughter with no place to live.
"We used to think of pleasant things in life, but now all people are talking about is where to get coffins, funerals and how we will rebuild from this nightmare with little money," Corre, 42, said. "I do not know why God is making us suffer like this . . . and why he would take everything away from me."
The toll from the worst earthquake to strike Columbia in more than a century has reached 878 confirmed dead and more than 3,410 injured, Red Cross spokeswoman Maria Perrelet told the Associated Press. Rescue workers said that in the provincial capital of Armenia, which bore the brunt of the earthquake, 500 bodies had been recovered and that many outlying towns had yet to be heard from.
As rain hampered the search for victims, the flood of injured overwhelmed local hospitals, requiring many of the patients to be airlifted to medical facilities in the cities of Cali, Medellin and Bogota, the capital.
Officials here have complained that a lack of coordination among the Red Cross, civil defense authorities and firefighters has delayed the delivery of food, water, clothes tents and other supplies. The shortage of those goods put Armenia on the verge of anarchy today.
Police officers guarding the Central Supermarket downtown could only watch as people grabbed anything they could: rice, coffee, potatoes, beans, stuffing it all into huge sacks. As the chaos extended through much of downtown, looters threw rocks at riot police trying to stop the mayhem.
"The problem is that we don't have the equipment to control rioting. We tried to stop them, but they began to throw rocks at us," police Lt. Jorge Duque told the Associated Press. "You can't fight against hunger."
One shoeless man emerged from the supermarket carrying a sack of food and a dozen brooms. Teen-agers waved their friends inside, others looked warily at the ceiling of the unstable structure, which seemed ready to collapse.
A block away, an angry crowd jostled Alberto Gutierrez, 43, who had taken 20,000 pesos – the equivalent of $13 – from the remains of a hardware store.
"I'm not stealing!" he pleaded as two men hit him on the head, one with a flashlight. "Insurance will cover it."
Calarca, a town of 66,000 people southeast of Armenia, also was hit hard, with 107 reported killed and an estimated 80 percent of its buildings damaged or destroyed. Today, funeral processions snaked through rubble-strewn streets with many of the victims placed in homemade coffins; the large number of dead has resulted in a casket shortage. Freshly dug graves waited at a mass burial site and in the local cemetery, where gravestones and above-ground tombs had crumbled in the earthquake.
Blanca Lilia's 29-year-old son, who died in a shower of debris at the family's home, was the first person to be interred today at the cemetery. "I will never forget this day and the sadness that I feel," Lilia said after placing roses on his grave. "He leaves behind four beautiful children that he will never see again. And they will never see him again."
In a rare bit of good news from Armenia, four people who had been trapped alive under rubble were rescued, the Associated Press reported. "I thank God because I am alive and my family is all right," Jorge Lieser Gomez, 65, said after his rescue.
The faint voices of two children were heard under the debris in Armenia Tuesday night, but by this morning rescue teams had been unable to dig them out. "Unfortunately the voices went quiet during the night, but we are still searching with the hope of rescuing them alive," said Cesar Augusto Giraldo, a civilian defense worker.
"We have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a handkerchief or a pen," said Luzmila Quiceno, 59, who was crying in front of her crumbled home in Calarca.
Large numbers of residents have built makeshift shelters out of plastic sheeting and boxes, filling them with a few salvaged possessions. This afternoon plumes of smoke wafted above the city as families cooked lunch over open fires in the streets. Many of the homeless said that the few shelters in town were already crowded and that, even if they were not, they would not stay in them because they are dangerous.
Vast stretches of Calarca were piled high with mounds of shattered brick and concrete, as well as rock and mud that had fallen from nearby mountainsides, making many roads impassable. Some residents worked feverishly to prop up their crumbling houses with long wooden planks.
Several houses that were still intact had been thrown from their foundations and were tilting ominously. Inside one collapsed structure, a dining room table that had been set for lunch before the earthquake remained almost undisturbed.
President Andres Pastrana, who was enroute to Armenia tonight to direct relief efforts, has promised an initial $12.6 million to rebuild houses. "This is the moment in which all Colombians will pay back those who for years and with their own hands have harvested the coffee beans and have generated for us peace, progress and work," he said.
Interior Minister Nestor Humberto Martinez said today that it would cost about $100 million just to rebuild homes. "There are towns . . . which are practically destroyed," he told Radionet radio.
As Debbie Duke, 36, loaded what possessions she was able to recover from her earthquake-ravaged apartment onto a truck this afternoon, she broke down in tears out of worry that she would not be able to find another place to rent in an area that had a housing shortage before the quake.
"My God, where are we going to go?," she asked. "I have two young sons and we need a place to start our lives over again. It could take years but I can't wait that long because I have to raise my boys. God, I do not know what I am going to do."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company