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Salvadorans struggle year after quakes

Survivor counts an infant among her blessings

SHARE Salvadorans struggle year after quakes

SANTO DOMINGO DE GUZMAN, El Salvador — Antonia Arevalo Perez says she was blessed with two miracles. After 15 hours crumpled in darkness under a mountain of mud and cinderblock, rescuers pulled her to safety. Then the doctors trying to save her crushed legs told her she was pregnant.

Perez, 21, is still recovering from the wounds of the magnitude-7.6 earthquake that killed 844 Salvadorans and injured more than 1 million a year ago today. Her daughter, now 4 months old, is named Milagro de Jesus — Miracle of Jesus.

Arevalo was a maid in a house in Las Colinas, a working-class, hillside neighborhood outside the capital, San Salvador. That neighborhood no longer exists.

The earthquake, felt from Mexico City to the Panama Canal, triggered a massive mudslide that buried 308 houses and killed 467 people in Las Colinas alone. Another 280 people who were in Las Colinas that Saturday morning remain missing — including Arevalo's husband and sister.

"There was the noise of an earthquake and then, in less than 10 seconds, everything was buried," said Arevalo, who suffers from back pain that has left her unable to lift heavy objects.

She lay crumpled in the darkness, and as the hours passed she lost the strength to scream for help or claw at the 16 feet of rubble on top of her.

"I think I was down to my last breath when I saw a ray of light, heard voices and then they were pulling me out," Arevalo said. "It was a miracle."

Arevalo now lives with her mother in Santo Domingo de Guzman, 45 miles west of the capital.

In the weeks following the Jan. 13 quake, hundreds of thousands of homeless Salvadorans lived under tents, plastic sheeting and garbage bags in a trash-strewn park nearby. Then, on Feb. 13, a 6.6-magnitude quake rocked them again, killing another 407 people, injuring more than 3,000 others and destroying 57,000 homes.

According to a study by government and relief agencies, the two earthquakes did more than $3 billion in damage. Foreign volunteers and non-governmental groups have built 28,000 new homes for quake victims. President Francisco Flores has pledged to build new homes for 175,000 more families.

After the second quake, the government moved 870 families from the Las Colinas area to a large park outside the city of San Juan Opico, 15 miles north of San Salvador.

Dubbed "Villa Esperanza" — "Town of Hope" — the state gave each family a 2,000-square-foot plot of land and promised to help the survivors rebuild their lives. The camp's inhabitants used anything and everything to build shacks and lean-tos they could call home.

In the year since the first quake, hundreds of volunteers from a Buddhist charity group have helped families build hundreds of modest homes outside the camp.

"Before I had nothing, and now I have hope of a new home for my family," said Jorge Mendez, who said a construction crew was nearing completion of a ranch-style home for himself and his family.

But Ana Elizabeth Duenas, head of San Juan Opico's relief committee, said life at Villa Esperanza still leaves a lot to be desired.

"These people urgently need a medical team," she said. "We don't have doctors that can treat them, and many aren't working and can't take their children to the hospital."

A lack of police officers and increased gang activity in the area also has made the camp a dangerous place to venture after dark, Duenas said.

But many of those in Villa Esperanza consider themselves lucky just to be alive.

"We are full of hope. It's all we have left," said Carlos Alberto Gomez, who was forced to abandon his still-standing Las Colinas home because of fears of future mudslides.

Las Colinas has remained largely uninhabited. In November, officials erected a large iron cross in the Santa Tecla cemetery, a few blocks from what's left of Las Colinas, to honor those killed on the day known to Salvadorans as "Black Saturday."

Twenty miles east of the capital, the quake flattened 90 percent of the houses and killed 50 people in the hilltop community of Comasagua, where 15,000 people live.

"It happened so fast," said Julia Rivas, 65. "In a second I was left with nowhere to live."

But soon, hundreds of volunteers began to arrive from Venezuela to spearhead Comasagua's cleanup and rebuilding effort. Slowly, new houses began to take shape.

"Little by little we are moving forward," said Manuel Martinez, a 40-year-old blind man. "The only way to move forward is to always stay united."