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Peru rebuilds two years on from quake

By Dan Collyns
BBC News, Chincha, Peru

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Professor Marcial Blondet explains how the adobe structure works

Since 1970, Peru has been hit by five powerful and deadly earthquakes. The latest struck Peru's coast exactly two years ago with a magnitude of 8.0 on the Richter scale.

It fiercely shook the capital Lima, but its devastating epicentre was about 200km (124 miles) to the south, near the town of Pisco, a small fishing port built largely of adobe - mud bricks which Peruvians have used for thousands of years.

More than 500 people were killed and about 75,000 homes were left uninhabitable.

For Peruvian engineer Marcial Blondet, it was the devastating quake in 1970 that first motivated him to develop earthquake-resistant buildings, particularly for those who could least afford them.

Some 70,000 people died in the mountainous region of Huaraz, many of them in an avalanche of snow, ice and rock which obliterated the town of Yungay. It was the deadliest earthquake in Latin American history.

'Tragic combination'

"Adobe and earthquakes are a perverse and tragic combination," says Mr Blondet.

"We are right in the middle of the most seismic area in the world. We've had many, many huge quakes and we are still waiting for the super big one.

"But a very large percentage of the people here are poor, so adobe is the only thing they can use to build their homes. Unfortunately, that's the case for millions of people in seismic zones around the world."

During more than 35 years of research, Mr Blondet and his team have tried a range of natural and industrial materials to try to reinforce weak mud-brick structures. Bamboo cane was one option, but there is not enough of it.

The people on the street are killed by the walls that fall out, the people inside are killed by the roof that falls in
Marcial Blondet

Mud-brick structures are tested vigorously on shaking tables which simulate earthquakes in the structural engineering laboratory at Lima's Catholic University.

Watching the simulations, it is easy to see just why adobe houses, home to about 40% of Peruvians, are such death-traps.

First a vertical crack appears, then the outer wall falls outwards, before the other walls crumble and the roof caves in.

"The people on the street are killed by the walls that fall out, the people inside are killed by the roof that falls in. It's terrible," says Mr Blondet.

"No-one should live in a house that behaves like this. A house is a place where we go when we want to feel protected and safe, so it's unbearable, completely unacceptable - an abomination - that your house kills you."

Finally, Mr Blondet and his team found a solution in an industrial plastic mesh used by mining companies to hold back earth on slopes. It is strong, cheap and easy to use.

Securely enveloping a normal mud-brick home in the mesh can prevent the walls from collapsing in an earthquake. The building wobbles but it does not fall down.

Purpose and hope

However, taking this simple technology and putting it into practice has been a slower process.

Margarita Ramirez and her son, Jair, outside their new seismic-resistant home
It's the best house we've ever had
Margarita Ramirez

Mensias is a small village of agricultural workers set amid fields of artichokes in rural Chincha, just north of Pisco. Everyone here lost their home in the 2007 earthquake.

Unlike much of the surrounding area - which has seen precious little reconstruction in the past two years - here there is a quiet sense of purpose and hope.

Groups of families are still living in makeshift shelters made of chipboard and plastic sheeting but new, improved homes are being constructed where the old ones stood.

Everyone gets involved. The men lay the mud bricks for the walls and crushed bamboo on the roofs while the women stitch the plastic mesh on to the walls under the watchful eye of an engineer.

"It's the best house we've ever had," says Margarita Ramirez, who with her husband, Daniel, and their four-year-old son, Jair, has just moved into the new, bright orange reinforced adobe home which they began building in March.

Construction of earthquake-resistant homes in Mensias
Everyone in the community of Mensias has been involved in rebuilding

"Before in the shelter we lived with insects and rats and our son suffered with the intense cold at night. Now my family's safe and warm," she says.

"At first we were afraid to build with adobe again after our last house was destroyed. But the engineers assured us that even with a strong earthquake, the mesh would prevent the walls from collapsing."

Nearby in San Aurelio, community leader Maria Magdalena Delgadillo stands proudly outside her new home, one of 34 in an open courtyard.

With the help of the development charity Care and a donation of 20,000 adobe bricks from a government agency, the community built the new earthquake-resistant homes in five months.

But its residents, mainly agricultural workers who earn Peru's minimum wage of about $50 (£30) per week, could never have done it alone.

Care, working with 13 other non-government organisations, has helped build 900 quake-proof homes and plans to complete 2,500 more by the end of 2010, says Milo Stanojevich, the charity's Peru director.

The Peruvian government - widely criticised for its chaotic reconstruction efforts - passed a supreme decree in April making the reinforced adobe homes project a national programme for rural Peru, at the cost of about $600 (£360) per family.

"The way I see it is this is the first large-scale application of earthquake technology being put into practice," says Mr Stanojevich.

'Short memory'

It may be the first step towards a long-term policy to reduce the devastating human and economic cost of earthquakes in Peru.

But with more than 40,000 people still homeless two years on from the quake, Peru's government is on the defensive.

Chincha villagers
Villagers in Chincha and elsewhere earn less than $50 a week as labourers

Francis Allison, Peru's fourth housing minister in three years, admitted there had been mistakes and promised that local people would start to see improvements by the end of the year.

He blamed the Reconstruction Fund for the South (Forsur), a public-private entity created after the quake, for focusing too much on infrastructure and not enough on rebuilding homes.

He said the regional authorities should focus on rebuilding infrastructure but some of them were working "incredibly slowly".

Crippling bureaucracy and corruption are routinely blamed for the frustratingly slow pace of the reconstruction.

Many of the quake's victims had high expectations of a government which, in the aftermath of the quake, enjoyed a booming economy and received an impressive amount of international aid.

Soon after the disaster, the government gave out about 28,000 donations of $2,000 (£1,200) to affected families to buy building materials.

But people in Peru have a "short seismic memory", says Marcial Blondet.

Thousands of people have already rebuilt without using earthquake-resistant technology, laying the foundations for the next tragedy.



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