The Pisco Earthquake

Peru’s then President, Alan Garcia, famously gaffed on the evening of August 15th, 2007, after a powerful seismic tremor had been felt in Lima for over two minutes, saying that ‘fortunately it hadn’t been a tragic event, as there were not many victims to mourn’. What he didn’t know at this stage, because the telephone network had collapsed, and Peru had no system of information-gathering in emergency situations, was the extent of the damage in the provinces south of Lima, principally Ica. 

News gradually filtered through of a major catastrophe: an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale leaving 519 people killed, 1,366 injured, 58,500 homes destroyed.

The days following the earthquake showed a remarkable level of solidarity as aid poured in both domestically and from abroad. Schools, supermarkets, even the National Stadium, were used as collection points for such donations as clothing, dried goods and bottled water.

Many people made humanitarian runs, in whatever transport they could get their hands on, to the affected areas to distribute what they had collected, in the wake of reports of passing buses being attacked for any comestibles that might be on board.

International humanitarian organizations arrived soon afterwards, and a visit to Pisco a few weeks later revealed a tented city, with temporary constructions boasting a varied provenance: some one might expect such as Oxfam and USAID; others more surprising – The Salvation Army and the Turkish Red Crescent.

Six months later and these tents are still very much in evidence, as are the piles of adobe rubble, testimony to the size and difficulty involved in rebuilding after such a cataclysmic event.

In a country that has a reputation for the volume and inefficiency of its paperwork, bureaucratic issues have certainly played a part in slowing progress. For example, establishing who owns the land on which rebuilding is planned has proved troublesome. 

There is a determination not to repeat the mistakes of the past, using seismic-resistant building materials and designs, but this is not practical for people who have lost everything. It involves extra expenditure, there is a shortage of construction workers and the cost of building materials has risen threefold in some cases.

Two voluntary projects should illustrate the multi-faceted nature of the response. Hands On Disaster Response is a US-registered NGO, which as the name suggests, reacts to worldwide disasters and sets up projects in the disaster zones, using foreign volunteer manpower - in this case, 535 volunteers from 30 countries.

One aspect of their project was in the rural area around Cañete, reconstructing 500m (1,640ft) of irrigation channels, in tandem with the local farmers and the municipal government. Water is scarce in this desert area, and without the channels, the crops would have failed, compounding the misery.

In the badly-damaged city of Chincha Alta, there is an ongoing scheme to build community centres that had been destroyed. These centres act as meeting places, soup kitchens, temporary schools - even workshops - for the inhabitants surrounding them.

The scheme has been driven by an up-market British school in Lima, Markham College, which has used its contacts and the manpower of its students to design and build prefabricated panels, which can be assembled on a concrete floor, roofed and painted in a day by as few as eight volunteers. 

So far, ten have been constructed and the local response has often been ‘you are the only people to help us’.

Obviously, there remains a huge amount still to be done, but one easy way in which the traveller can help is by spending tourist dollars in the restored facilities of Paracas, Ica, Huacachina … even Pisco itself.