Cleanup comes slowly, housing a priority in devastated Chilean towns

LIMA, Peru (CNS) — Cleanup is beginning in towns on Chile’s central coast as electricity and telephone service is slowly restored and people try to rebuild their lives after a magnitude 8.8 earthquake killed nearly 800 people and caused millions of dollars in damage.

"We’re trying to get back to normal," Maryknoll Brother John Nitsch told Catholic News Service in a March 3 telephone interview.

Brother Nitsch, who works in Curico, about 125 miles south of Santiago, the Chilean capital, was in the seaside village of Iloca with more than a dozen parish catechists when the earthquake struck at 3:34 a.m. Feb. 27.

The group fled to high ground and watched as a giant wave swept through the town about half an hour after the earthquake.

"Homes were moved from where they were into the street," said Brother Nitsch, a Baltimore native. Cars were swept away, and the electricity went out. The only light came from the nearly full moon.

Because telephone service was disrupted, two days passed before Brother Nitsch could let his Maryknoll superiors know he was safe. When he and the catechists were able to return to Curico, they found many of the old adobe buildings in the city center in ruins.

"The rural cities and towns are mainly adobe buildings, and they fell down," Nitsch said. "A lot of big, old churches came down."

In the Talca Diocese, where he works, 14 churches were destroyed and 18 were seriously damaged.

Ironically, Brother Nitsch said, the poor neighborhood where he lives suffered little damage. His neighbors’ government-subsidized concrete-block homes withstood the quake. Many people in the region did lose their homes, however, and church workers in the Talca Diocese have made housing for earthquake victims an urgent priority.

"Winter is just around the corner, and winter here is very cold and damp," he said.

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