Colombia quake hit as city drafted damage-limit plan

Officials were addressing settlement, building codes

February 03, 1999|By NEWSDAY

ARMENIA, Colombia -- When the massive seismic waves subsided last week, the residents of the impoverished warrens in the south of this town could barely find an unchipped brick to salvage. But in the north, in what passes for the ritzy uptown of this city of 300,000, there were condominiums and apartments with hardly a crack.

The town hit by the 6.0-magnitude earthquake is split by a socioeconomic fault line between the poor, who build where they can with materials at hand, and the more wealthy, whose housing was built with more care, under stricter codes.

"I didn't have any damage to my buildings," boasted Jairo Nieto Arias, a builder of several condominiums and apartments, mostly in the north of town. "There were a few cracks, but no real structural damage."

The buildings he and others have built since 1984, when Colombia passed a seismic-safety law, follow more stringent construction rules than those in the expanding poorer sections, where structures crumbled and heavy roofs of Spanish tile toppled from their bamboo-pole beams.

Armenia officials were not ignorant of the dangers posed by old or shoddy construction atop the many seismic faults that cross this mountainous region of western Colombia. City officials had just finished drafting a plan that would more tightly control settlement patterns and construction codes in areas prone to strong ground movement during earthquakes.

"The ink was barely dry on the plan," said Maxx Dilley, a seismic adviser for the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, who toured the disaster zone last week. "It's ironic. They were trying to do the right thing."

Doing the right thing is tough in a developing nation such as Colombia, where wealth is distributed unevenly, bureaucracies are cumbersome and cities constantly swell with the poor chased from the war-torn countryside.

"There are no quick fixes," said Paul Bell, the Latin American and Caribbean coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID).

The haphazard economic development of Latin America -- from where roads are built to how land is used -- often increases vulnerability to disaster, according to Juan Pablo Sarmiento, a Colombian adviser with U.S. AID who conducted a 1996 study on sustainable development and risk mitigation.

"You have to analyze what the danger is," Sarmiento said of development plans. "We put more emphasis on assessing the risk and not just managing a disaster after it happens."

In Colombia, serious planning to mitigate the effects of the inevitable eruptions and earthquakes in the Andean region began after a 1983 earthquake in Popayan. It was boosted two years later, when a mudslide triggered by a volcanic eruption buried the town of Armero, killing an estimated 23,000.

"Colombia has a lot of years of living through this," Sarmiento said. "What we're proposing is nothing new."

After the Popayan earthquake, which left 3,000 homeless, Colombia passed a tough seismic-safety law and formed a disaster mitigation agency. But the agency got mired in politics and bureaucracy and only recently has begun making progress, Sarmiento said.

President Andres Pastrana, who has taken personal charge of overseeing the relief effort after the latest earthquake, faces some tough decisions. During a meeting he convened with his top Cabinet officers and U.S. AID officials late last week, military officials argued for a massive relocation of the homeless to open land.

But top AID officials vehemently opposed the plan, which they said would result in a permanent squatter village built on potentially quake-threatened land.

On a more immediate level, authorities said yesterday that emergency food supplies are down to only four or five days for the more than 200,000 homeless.

They said private donations were dropping off precipitously, and they appealed for more aid to fill the gap between what Colombians need and what the government and international relief agencies have rushed in.

Pub Date: 2/03/99

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