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LDS aid to Peru after quake is a ‘beautiful thing’

PISCO, Peru — Not a day passes that Rosa Maurtua doesn't lay her hand across the solid brick and mortar of her new house, relishing the security it provides.

A "well built home" are three sweet words for Maurtua. On Aug. 15, 2007, a massive magnitude 8.0 quake struck her city of Pisco and other regions of western Peru. Hundreds were killed and thousands more lost their homes.

"When the earthquake started, I crawled under a table with my grandchildren," she remembered. "The ground was moving so violently that we were knocking our heads against the bottom of the table."

When the earth finally settled, Maurtua found herself among Peru's new homeless.

Two and a half years later, the horrifying images of the adobe walls of her family home collapse about her remain vivid. Such memories, she said, have left her forever grateful to be living under a strong roof, surrounded by reinforced brick walls secured to a sturdy foundation.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began delivering assistance to the quake victims in the immediate hours following the quake. Days later, tons of food, water and other provisions flown in from Salt Lake City sustained church members and many other victims. In the weeks that followed, hundreds of families sought refuge in tent cities that sprung up around LDS meetinghouses in affected areas.

But recovery from a natural disaster such as the historic temblor that rattled western Peru extends beyond bottles of water, tents and other first-response provisions. Many who watched their homes crumble wondered if they would ever again live in a place they could call their own.

Evidence of the quake can still be found here in this industrial coastal city. Adobe walls on city streets are cracked and scarred, and piles of rubble remain. But for many, the recovery is finally complete. A large-scale building project sponsored by the LDS Church has helped hundreds of Peruvian members such as Maurtua enjoy lives in new homes built to withstand future seismic events.

Some 349 homes have been completed with materials and guidance provided by the church. The muscle and sweat of the homeowners and their fellow members and friends provided the labor.

Each new home is built on a reinforced foundation and includes beams, columns and roofs fortified with multiples rows of rebar. Nobody will mistake the houses for mansions, but they do protect the residents with solid walls and priceless peace of mind.

The recipients of the homes call their new residences remarkable blessings.

"The project has been a beautiful thing," said Jeronimo Gutierrez, who lives in a new home with his wife, Carmen, and sons Lennin and Melvin. "We always use our family home evening to remember the importance of gratitude."

The Peru homebuilding project was executed under the direction of Elder Marcus B. Nash, a member of the church's Quorum of the Seventy and the president of the South America West Area.

The effort was anchored in rebuilding both homes and spirits. Four guiding principles defined the project: integrity, gratitude, hard work and service.

Senior missionaries with professional construction backgrounds were called to Peru to help oversee the building efforts. They were joined by local engineers who helped ensure each of the new homes adhered to strict design standards to make them as seismic-proof as possible.

Lives have been forever changed. Wenceslao Conde remembers Aug. 15, 2007, as the worst day of his life. He had attended his mother's funeral and was returning to his home when the ground began shifting and shaking violently.

"When we reached our home, we found all the walls had been destroyed. We were so scared," Conde said.

A woman and her young daughter who lived next door to the Condes were both killed when they were struck by a falling beam near their front door. Panic was felt across his neighborhood.

Conde was serving as the branch president in his LDS unit when the quake struck. For a month and a half he performed his ecclesiastical duties and tried to earn an income while living with his family in a tent pitched outside the local LDS meetinghouse.

Now they live in a modest two-level house constructed as part of the church's home rebuilding program.

"I feel so much gratitude to be able to live in a home such as this," he said, pointing to the many columns that support his roof and walls. "I have learned to have confidence in the Lord."

The rebuilding project has benefited more than the members who lost homes. A public primary school in Pisco was all but demolished in the quake, leaving children in the area with nowhere to attend school. The church decided to rebuild the San Miguel School. Today the neighborhood kids attend class in a sturdy two-winged, red-walled campus.

"The students are proud to call San Miguel their school," said administrator Juan Francisco Murguia.

As he tours many of the homes that he helped build during the project, engineer Rolando Castilla said the construction effort was not defined by bricks, rebar and concrete.

"This," he said, "was spiritual work."

e-mail: Swensen covered the earthquake in Peru for the Deseret News in the days following the Aug. 15, 2007, disaster.