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  Thousands Still Homeless 1 Year After Mexico Quake

By William A. Orme Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 20, 1986; Page A01

MEXICO CITY, SEPT. 19 -- More than 80,000 people are still living in temporary shelters in streets and parks one year after their homes were destroyed by the Mexico City earthquake, putting officials on the defensive about slow-moving reconstruction efforts.

In the government's latest effort to show progress in its earthquake housing programs, President Miguel de la Madrid ceremonially presented disaster victims with titles to 6,300 new federally built apartments yesterday, bringing to 23,600 the number of families said officially to have received permanent new homes.

The president proclaimed a day of national mourning on the first anniversary of the quake today and all radio stations went silent for one minute at 7:18 a.m., the hour the first of several quakes and aftershocks hit the city.

In all, officials estimated, the Sept. 19, 1985, earthquake left about 90,000 families in need of housing aid. Another 52,000 apartments are to be completed before the earthquake's second anniversary, according to administration officials. But two years after the disaster, they acknowledged, at least 10,000 families will probably remain unhoused.

Officials had originally promised to provide housing for all affected families by last Christmas. But while 12,500 unoccupied state housing units were quickly handed out to homeless government employes, according to official accounts, con- struction of most new housing projects did not get under way until Easter.

Cuauhtemoc Abarca, the coordinator of a combative coalition of organizations representing the homeless, led protest marches against the program's slow progress, bitterly criticizing the government's decision to spend international aid on the reconstruction of schools and hospitals instead of housing.

"This money was given to help the people, the victims of the earthquake, and the government kept the money for itself," he complained in an interview.

Tonight, more than 10,000 earthquake victims and their supporters marched on Mexico City's main square to demand shelter for the homeless and criminal prosecution of officials responsible for allegedly faulty construction of government buildings. Hours earlier, in a much smaller rally, several thousand government supporters gathered at the plaza to commemorate the anniversary.

Mexican officials vehemently defended their management of foreign disaster aid, noting the absence of substantial complaints from donors. The new housing drive was initially impeded not by a shortage of funds but by bureaucratic conflicts that have since been resolved, they contended.

"At first, there was a lot of confusion and a lack of organization," Gabino Fraga, deputy minister of ecology and urban development, said in an interview. "It took us six months to get a housing program together. But you have to appreciate the earthquake's magnitude. It was the strongest ever to occur in such a densely populated urban area."

Measuring 8.1 on the open-ended Richter scale, the earthquake caused more than $3.5 billion in physical damage in the capital and took about 20,000 lives, according to foreign diplomatic analysts, United Nations researchers and independent Mexican experts. The government has been criticized for failing to prepare its own comprehensive report detailing the disaster's damage and human casualties.

The 44,000 new center city apartments being given to victims are tiny by middle-class Mexican standards, with barely 500 square feet of floor space. But for most occupants, the new units are an improvement over their former, far more cramped quarters in decaying buildings that in some cases dated back to Spanish colonial days. The government expropriated the old rental properties from private landlords and is selling the new apartments through long-term, low-interest loans, with payments not to exceed 30 percent of the monthly minimum wage.

"The new place looks pretty good to us," Eduardo Rosales, a mason, said after moving into a new apartment building with his wife and two children two weeks ago. "We have water, we have electricity, and it is going to be ours."

Acutely sensitive to charges that it mishandled the disaster, the government this week sponsored a series of ceremonies and conferences commemorating the earthquake and publicizing its reconstruction efforts. Internationally renowned seismologists and structural engineers attended scientific seminars, while foreign reporters were treated to a tour of rebuilt schools, hospitals and apartment buildings. Construction crews worked overtime readying new housing units in time for yesterday's presidential ceremonies.

Overshadowing the government's efforts, however, has been the continuing antagonism between high-level officials and groups representing many of the earthquake victims.

Some observers traced the government's credibility problems to its refusal to estimate officially the number of dead, which led critics to accuse it of deliberately playing down the disaster.

"The government has consistently tried to hide information and minimize the facts," Abarca said.

This week the government again reported only that death certificates had been issued for 4,287 bodies recovered from the ruins, declining to estimate the complete death toll. Yet one week after the quake, federal officials estimated in private conversations with foreign reporters and diplomats that it had claimed 9,500 victims.

Fraga this week said the total number of victims could range from 10,000 to 15,000, but other officials immediately characterized his estimate as being "without basis."

The U.S. Embassy here, relying on its own investigations, Mexican military sources and other western governments, concluded in a published report that 20,000 to 30,000 people were killed in the disaster.

The death toll controversy reinforced skepticism about the government's disaster aid efforts, observers say.

"When a society is confronted with a tragedy of such magnitude and the authorities are trying to minimize it, that creates all kinds of reason for suspicion," Adolfo Aguilar Zinsser, a political analyst at Mexico's Economic Research Center, said in an interview.

Officials almost reflexively underestimated the death toll, Aguilar said, because they feared the disaster "would damage the image of an omnipotent superstate capable of handling any problem."

Another motive, critics charged, involved widespread accusations that many deaths were caused by allegedly corrupt construction practices in government building projects.

Officials acknowledged that quake damage was concentrated disproportionately in public buildings: of the estimated 20 million square feet of downtown office space destroyed by the temblor, about 12 million square feet belonged to the government, Fraga said. Among the wrecked buildings were the headquarters of four ministries and a 20-story federal court center that was the only major office tower in the city to be destroyed.

More seriously, the buildings with the largest losses of life were all built and managed by the government: the General Hospital, where 116 staff members and an estimated 200 patients died; the Juarez Hospital, where there were, by a medical association count, about 1,000 victims; and the Nuevo Leon apartment building, where the government acknowledged 289 deaths but tenants' groups said at least 600 residents were killed.

The government has declined to respond publicly to the charges of corruption and negligence. Yet foreign and independent Mexican experts who studied the quake damage said in interviews that the widespread destruction of government buildings was probably due to causes other than lax construction standards.

"You can't say that corruption was not a factor in some instances, but the percentage of damage attributable to corruption was probably very minimal," said Jorge Prince of the National University's Engineering Institute, one of a team of structural engineers now preparing a tougher, more detailed antisesimic building code for Mexico City.

Most of the earthquake's damage was provoked by the unusually prolonged, severe rocking of the boggy ancient lake bed beneath Mexico's capital, scientists say. For more than two minutes, with almost metronomic regularity, the soft center-city subsoil surged back and forth by one foot every two seconds, setting in motion extraordinary strains on broad-based buildings from five to 15 stories high--structures big enough to sway, but not tall or flexible enough to rock resiliently along with the earthquake's motion.

By coincidence, engineers reported, most buildings of this size and design in the downtown district belonged to the government, which had also widely employed a lightweight "waffle-slab" construction technique that proved vulnerable to the quake's stresses.

"The intensity and duration of the earthquake far exceeded what authorities would have reasonably expected," Frank McClure, president-elect of the California-based Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, said in a telephone interview.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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