Aftershocks of an earthquake

Posted: Mar 12, 2001 12:00 AM
SAN VICENTE, El Salvador - The woman looked up from behind the cash register of the Super(market) Monte Carlo and burst into tears when two Americans asked her about the earthquake in her town. "For you it's an adventure," she said. "For us it's reality." She said it without bitterness or accusation, but with the resignation that dominates Salvadoran conversations about the tragedy. "We can withstand what God sends, but we are asking God for clemency." Angela Munos de Ayala, age 69, owns and runs the small store with her husband. They have visas to the United States, where they want to visit with family in Virginia, "but not now when they need us here more." Some soaps, chips and dry cereal fell off the shelves during the second earthquake, but Angela considers herself extremely lucky. In this town of San Vicente, and all around the Super Monte Carlo in the center of the city, hundreds of houses and shops are but memories, shrines of piles of rough brown stones where an occasional door frame stands sculpted like a doorway to hell. Only 30 miles east of San Salvador, San Vicente (population 72,000) was one of the cities hit hardest by the second Salvadoran earthquake in a month. The city rests below the slopes of Chichontepec Volcano, noted for its double cone silhouette and a summit tourists climb to scan the panorama of fields and rivers of the Jiboa Valley. The town escaped the ravages of the January earthquake, but today even the volcano has a huge gash cut deep into its side testifying to the thundering knifelike power of the second one. San Vicente was described as having "colonial gentility," with graceful architecture fronting quiet streets. But that was before the noisy din of workmen and heavy trucks that carried away debris, filling the city with the dissonant cacophony of the wake of disaster. Young men in army uniforms and camouflage caps, many wearing masks to shield the nose and mouth from the thick dust of destruction, help the displaced townspeople repair and rebuild walls and restore rooftops while policemen with guns watch for looters tempted to steal from the vulnerable. In the central square, an ornamental clock tower of painted white cement tilts to one side and the hands of the clock are frozen at 8:20, the time the earthquake struck on the morning of Feb. 13. Time stands still on the face of the clock but not on the faces of the people below who struggle for an existence. Not easy to do. A thin old woman stops to talk. She is both dignified and needy and says she's going to the market to see if she can get some food. She does not beg, but she doesn't turn away from a gift of 20 colones (about $2.40). Asked whether her house was destroyed, she says "no," adding, "only two rooms." One man with a cell phone is served a hot lunch with his wife and two teen-agers on a small square in front of the Iglesia El Pilar, a lovely old church built in 1762. The church has survived many earthquakes, but each one has chipped away at its picturesque facade. The family bows heads in a prayer before eating the meager meal. They look to be among the prosperous. The father tells a visitor that he's from the town of Jerusalem, a few miles away. His home was destroyed and several died in his town. On a park ground above the city, tiny triangular tents house the homeless. Tattered sheets of blue plastic serve as roof covers on makeshift hovels to protect the inhabitants from a hot orange sun. The rainy season is only two months away. In a mild aftershock, the earth begins to rumble under a visitor's feet as she admires a parrot at market. The queasy fear that dominates for a lengthy 30 seconds passes. Did I merely imagine the earth's rumbling? Business goes on as usual. The sellers and customers sense the visitor's unease, and tell her not to worry, there are lots of aftershocks as the earth "adjusts" to the quake. Only an adolescent girl, who looks to be mentally retarded, is upset. She shrieks long after the rumbling subsides, expressing a fear and trembling. Her mother holds her close, wipes away her tears, speaking softly, telling her the earthquake has passed, but she is inconsolable. It's as though her wailing, a solo dirge of despair, encompasses the pain everyone feels, but dares not speak. A short walk away, down a main street, next to a destroyed building stands a sign, firmly planted on a building open for business: FUNERALES LA RESURRECCION - Al Servicio del Pueblo. A few doors away a handmade sign hangs on a crumbling wall announcing a quake-torn house for sale. The juxtaposition of tragedy and the grotesque is without irony in San Vicente.