In an earthquake one feels very small. During the earthquakes in El Salvador on Jan. 13 and Feb. 13, the street heaved underfoot; buildings and light posts rocked; telephone cables swung like jump-ropes. The first quake, 7.6 on the Richter scale, had its epicenter off the coast, while the second, 6.6 on the Richter scale, was centered in El Salvador itself. Thousands of tremors occurred in the weeks following the February quake, including a sharp jolt on Feb. 17 that exceeded 6.0 on the Richter scale with its epicenter near the capital. The quakes killed almost 1,300 people.
The damage to housing is overwhelming. One in five homes was buried, destroyed or badly damaged. Over one million people were left homeless. Hardest hit were the adobe dwellings of the poor in the coastal region and along the mountainous ridge extending southwest from the capital. The government and construction companies have conspired to devastate the environment, while poverty and exclusion have forced many people to live in mud-brick and bamboo huts on hillsides. The damage of the earthquake is largely the fruit of human sin and neglect, but those who have sinned and those who suffer are not the same.
In San Salvador, the capital, on the day after the first quake, we celebrated Sunday Eucharist in the street for fear that an aftershock might rock our barrio chapel—with us inside. Local residents had slept out of doors that night for fear that aftershocks would fell the cracked walls of their simple homes. During the Mass we struggled to make sense of the tragedy. We had had war in the 1980’s, pestilence (dengue fever, cholera and a new strain of diarrheic virus) in the last few years, a hurricane (Mitch) in 1998 and now an earthquake. Some asked, “Is the world coming to an end?” Others asked, “Where is God?”
In our Eucharist, we recalled the story of Elijah in the cave at Horeb, when he asked to meet with God. First came a hurricane. Next came an earthquake. But God was not in the hurricane or the earthquake. God was present instead in the whisper of a gentle wind. “Where have we felt a soft breeze like that?” we asked. “Where have we heard such a voice?” In the days following the earthquakes, as I visited villages and towns struck by them, I heard that voice from the poor, in their faith, resilience and solidarity.
After Mass, I visited displaced families in the large city park of Santa Tecla. Survivors were laying out donated blankets for the night and lining up for a hot supper, thanks to urban parishes that had quickly swung into action. Some of the women told me how their rural community had been buried by a landslide. Working mothers—who frequently lock their children indoors on Saturdays for “security”—returned home to find the children they had left at home now interred in the rubble.
The next day, I visited the village of Los Laureles. We climbed over fallen trees and landslides and up a steep grade for two miles, lugging clothing, medicine and a hot meal prepared by parishioners in the capital. The school and chapel were intact, but only three houses remained standing. This community of adobe, located high on a ridge, had shaken like the tenth floor of a skyscraper. Yet already bamboo poles had been gathered near the entrance to the community, and construction of temporary shelter was underway.
The following day, making our way in a pickup truck, we reached the volcano crater where many were buried by landslides on Saturday. Lacking decent land, poor residents eke out a meager existence by descending to the crater floor hundreds of feet below to plant vegetables. Ana Guadalupe told us that an avalanche had buried her sister down there on Saturday. Mario said he had lost a brother the same way.
On Thursday, I visited Armenia, almost an hour from the capital in normal times. Thirty-eight had died there; the destruction was massive. One man had worked for 15 years in Los Angeles to build a two-story brick home and resettle in his hometown. It was now all a ruin. But in the middle of the match-stick rubble from several homes, someone had planted a defiant, very Salvadoran, sign: “Armenia Vive!” (Armenia lives!). People cooking lunch in the streets responded to our greetings with cordial smiles. There they sleep at night under plastic sheets. A couple welcomed us with wide smiles to what had been their home. “Come in!” said Sonia Virginia. Actually, there was no “in” ahead at all, nothing but debris, three children, three adults and a pot of soup simmering over a fire on the ground. There was something more than raw tragedy here in Armenia. There was a kind of consolation and a resilience that the bare facts alone could not account for.
Eleven others live with Fina Hernández and Don Chepe in Río Abajo, a half-hour southeast of Armenia. They are more fortunate than many of their neighbors. They have almost two complete walls standing, and a decent roof will hold for now. They insisted that I not leave without a hefty bunch of bananas. Their neighbor, Porfiria, ran out from her hut of zinc sheets to hand me three large eggs!
Fina speaks of God in intimate terms in this time of trial. “My Father has taken care of us.” She fainted during the quake, but God took care of the whole family. A few miles away Leonor Mejía fell to her knees during the earthquake and abandoned herself to God’s will. Now she sheds tears telling of it. Up in the town of Jayaque, Felix Guardado knows that God does not punish us with earthquakes; Felix instead marvels at the way God takes advantage of the situation to bring old enemies together to face the common crisis.
This is the profound faith of rural Latin America, faith in a friendly, nearby God, a close companion whose mercy has saved the family and the community, helping them to bounce back and share with others what little they have. Fina, Leonor and Felix listen to the still soft voice that stirred Elijah. Their sober faith does not come easily to us urban, postmodern sophisticates, but we will need to count on their consoling God as we face the long-term task of re-building. We are challenged to recognize that the disaster presents an opportunity to organize and to build unity. As Don Felix well knows, God does not send hurricanes or earthquakes. But out of such tragedies—which we make more lethal by injustice and environmental depredation—God does generate hope, resilience and new life.
We also visited Santa María Ostuma, a typical-sized rural town of a few thousand people, near the epicenter of the powerful second quake. As we approached the area, the proud Chinchontepec volcano rose in the distance with a gaping wound in its side, the product of a mammoth landslide. Santa María Ostuma used to be the stuff of picture postcards, a candidate for the loveliest site in El Salvador. Entering the town this time left us stunned. Ostuma had been hit hard by the first quake. Now the entire town, with its surrounding hamlets, lay in ruins. We soon stopped asking people about their houses. The answer is always the same. “Fallen to the ground.” “Destroyed.” The second quake hit these people when they were down. The town’s emergency response team is weary but not beaten. On the positive side, the calamity has actually reconciled warring factions. They criticize the government’s inefficiency and a retired colonel who is sowing division in the town.
Along the streets, households prepare a meal or arrange a tent for shelter. A few small girls level the road with pick and shovel. Soft voices send friendly greetings and warm to conversation. One woman offers the visitors a refreshing drink. Don Miguel Angel tells how falling rubble pinned his son under a door. Fortunately, they discovered him and pulled him out. Others were less lucky. Twenty had died in Santa María Ostuma. Considering the damage to buildings, the number seems low.
A beautiful, 300-year-old colonial church dominated Ostuma’s landscape until last month. Now all its massive stone, brick and mortar lie in heaps on the ground. Curiously, its slender wooden columns, also 300 years old, remain standing today in parallel rows in the middle of the nave. Reaching upward, they continue to support the entire spindly wooden framework that held up the church’s ceiling. What is heaviest and strongest has fallen in ruins. The weakest, most fragile part of the construction remains—a fitting metaphor for Ostuma and El Salvador. The buildings have fallen. The people remain and rebuild.
The president told the foreign press that the quakes will set back national development 20 years. The earthquakes have stirred us from our routine slumber in the face of the age-old tragedy of the poor. After the earthquakes, it has been easier to appreciate that the Salvadoran poor were always living in a permanent earthquake. The temptation will be to go back to living as if the everyday poverty of the majority were not a matter of life and death. If we resist that temptation, perhaps the solidarity will continue and the unity in rebuilding will increase. Perhaps there was something of God in the earthquake, after all.