Masaya Trembles: The Lessons of a Disaster
Nicaragua’s most densely populated area is riddled with fault lines. Recent earthquakes in Masaya offer us more lessons on how to reduce the dangers of living there, but nobody seems to want to learn. Should we all just move to the Caribbean coast?
José Luis Rocha
At midday on July 6, an earthquake whose epicenter was located in the volcanic lake known as Apoyo, just 6 km from the city of Masaya, registered 5.9 on the Richter scale.
It caused destruction in Plan de Laguna and Valle de Laguna in the immediate Apoyo area, in Masaya itself and in neighboring Catarina, Diriá, Diriomo, Diriomito, San Juan de Oriente, Nandasmo, Niquinohomo and Quebrada Honda. These are mostly small towns from the colonial period and some are even pre-Colombian indigenous villages, and are located on the "Meseta de los Pueblos," a densely populated coffee-producing plateau southwest of Masaya. The colonial city of Granada was also affected and the tremor was even felt strongly in Managua, 38 km away.
The population had not yet recovered from the shock when the zone was shaken by another earthquake the next evening, this one measuring 5.2 on the Richter scale, which tripled the number of evacuees to over 4,000. "We saw weird bubbling in the water," said one inhabitant from the lake- side communities. "Then it seemed like a blender. Everything shook like it was boiling."
Still in a state of shock, a woman from Diriomito said, "My whole house collapsed. Only Spider Man survived; his poster was on the only wall that didn’t fall down."
Again the bowels of the earth shifted in Nicaragua, land of lakes and volcanoes… and earthquakes. And again the effects caught us off guard, the tragic past experiences and the multiple studies that have been done still unheeded.
Almost five centuries ago the Spanish chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo passed through these afflicted lands and wrote about the tremors and their effects, recording the seriousness of this ongoing phenomenon and making recommendations for suitable territorial planning. He warned that "the founders of new towns should keep away from such dangerous neighborhoods and places where earthquakes and tempests have been seen, because sooner or later similar damage will happen and [...] whenever it does it will cause destruction and desolation to men and provinces." But with earthquakes again causing furious devastation in Nicaragua, it is clear that we have made little progress over the past five centuries. The conclusion drawn by the refugees is obvious and they have undoubtedly repeated it many times before: "Living here is a scourge!"
A first assessment of the damagesThe losses caused by the earthquakes and the intense aftershocks that continued for several days in the Meseta de los Pueblos have not yet been fully calculated. According to figures gathered as of July 13 by the Red Cross, MASINFA, World Vision, Citizens Initiative, UNAG, the Civil Defense Force and the Communal Movement and processed by the Masaya Civil Coordinator, some 16,402 people and 3,084 houses were affected in the Masaya municipality, representing 14% of the total population and housing. Of the houses affected, 1,470 were destroyed and 1,614 damaged.
In the city of Masaya alone, 189 houses were destroyed and 894 severely damaged, representing 7% of all urban housing. The situation was worse in Masaya’s rural areas, where almost 40% of the houses suffered some damage. In the small La Ermita area of Valle de Laguna, only 53 out of 508 houses were undamaged.
Summarizing other figures provided by the emergency committees in Granada, Diriomito, Diriomo and Diriá, 202 houses were destroyed and 487 semi-destroyed, while 1,007 more were damaged in some way. In the latter three ancient indigenous towns alone, 9,636 people were affected. Another 2,800 were affected in Catarina, an indigenous town as famous for its gardeners and nurseries as San Juan del Oriente is for its traditional pottery.
Cracks in our cultural heritageThe earthquakes also had a huge impact on Nicaragua’s cultural heritage. Although magnificent colonial examples of popular religious imagery—such as the Bad Thief, the Lord of the Miracles and Jesus of Nazareth from Masaya’s Church of the Calvary—were saved, many valuable old churches were left in a very precarious state by the violent shock waves.
The Parish Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Masaya was designed by Diego José de Porres y Esquivel, a Guatemalan mulatto also responsible for León’s famous Cathedral. It is a formidable construction dating back to the 18th century and was undergoing restoration for accumulated damages when the tremors caused cracks in the tower and toppled the Virgin positioned in an alcove in the church’s facade. Although it is Masaya’s oldest church, built nearly 350 years ago, it resisted the onslaught thanks to the quality of materials used and its adaptation to seismic activity, both of which were characteristics of de Porres’ famous Guatemala school of architecture.
In contrast, the barrel vault and tower of the Church of St. Jerome sustained serious damage, even though it is a 20th-century building completed in the fifties. Plans are to fence off the church as a precautionary measure. Some engineers believe that it could be restored, but at a cost of over US$500,000. Others recommend that it be demolished, a measure that would only be taken as a last resort. Although St. Jerome is not Masaya’s patron saint, he is the object of the city’s most joyful celebrations, which last for a whole month. The church bearing his name was built on the site of an old indigenous temple, located directly in front of the volcano, which probably accounts for the popularity of Saint Jerome, or Tata Chombo as he is popularly known.
The first quake seriously damaged the left side wall and facade of the Church of the Calvary, a 19th-century stone building with Arabic-style roof tiles, also in Masaya. The second quake finished the job. Apparently little can be done and experts recommend its demolition.
The same is true of San Juan de Oriente’s church, which has a charming popular baroque façade. Dating back to the 18th century, it is one of the oldest churches in the Meseta de los Pueblos. It sustained serious damages halfway up the walls and its buttresses came away from the main structure. Demolition was recommended, as restoring the damage would be too costly.
Diriá’s Church of the Candlemas Virgin, which was built in the 19th century and has magnificent arches, was severely damaged, but can be restored. The church in Diriomo is also repairable, although its arches and cornices were badly affected. Damage was also sustained in the Holy Chapel of Granada’s 20th-century Cathedral, built on the site of the parish church destroyed by William Walker’s filibusters. The Cathedral contains the remains of many bishops of Nicaragua. Finally, the Salesian Church of St. Sebastian’s María Auxiliadora Chapel, also in Granada, was left in bad shape as well, but it can be repaired.
The overall damage has been severe and repairs will cost millions of dollars. National Institute of Culture director Clemente Guido and the members of the institute’s National Heritage Commission met with parishioners from the affected churches to evaluate the damages, calculate the cost of repairs, plan viable operations and take certain precautionary measures. Among the latter are the suspension of religious services and the prohibition of fireworks near the churches as loud noises and crowds could cause cave-ins.
The seven plagues: stress, vigils, drought, economic ruin…The sociological impact of the earthquakes is also evident. By the end of July, local inhabitants were still sleeping in their back yards, in the streets in front of their houses or even beside highways, fearful of new tremors following the reactivation of the system of fault lines. Stress and nighttime vigils were taking their toll on productivity and family relations, adding to the problems already caused by a prolonged drought in the Masaya area. According to Julio Narváez, Masaya’s departmental president of the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), 6,290 of the 10,710 acres of basic grains planted have been lost due to the unusually dry start to the rainy season. Meanwhile the local arts and crafts industries in various small towns also suffered serious setbacks because the fallen masonry smashed finished products, traditional kilns, lathes, sewing machines and many other tools and means of production. San Juan de Oriente—fondly known as San Juan of the Plates—was particularly badly hit, affecting an estimated 180 potters.
The disaster also had a negative influence on trading, which is particularly serious because Masaya’s small fruit and vegetable merchants often supply areas as far away as Río Blanco, Matiguás and Wiwilí in northern Nicaragua. As one lake-side inhabitant put it: "The lake people sell basket loads of vegetables and handmade brooms. They were forced to dip into their savings during the crisis and now have no working capital left. The only thing they can do is scrimp as much as possible, since they need money to make a living. They need credit."
So near to Managua and so far from helpThe famous Emergency Committee created by the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation System is more a result of support by the United Nations Development Program than of national initiatives. It has spent large amounts of money on seminars and interdisciplinary studies, but was conspicuous by its absence during the recent crisis in Masaya. Having clambered up the lake’s steep sides in desperate flight from the earthquakes and probable landslides and in search of some haven where they could wait out the emergency, inhabitants from the Lake Apoyo area were offended by the meager aid offered by the government. Just a few days after the tragedy hit, they began to leave the emergency shelters and return to their ruined homes. Of the 1,200 people who initially took refuge in the "Laura Vicuña" school, only 120 children and 99 adults remained a week later, according to Lions Club vice-governor, Leonardo Torres Céspedes. He stated that the support they were able to provide to those affected by the disaster was limited by the government’s playing down of the situation’s seriousness, just as it did almost two years ago in the immediate aftermath of the Hurricane Mitch tragedy.
Just a week after the earthquakes, the central government declared that the Masaya municipal government had total responsibility for the affected population. Under normal circumstances Masaya’s government collects on average 1,200,000 córdobas (a bit over US$94,000) a month, according to its financial director. But Marlon Sánchez, in charge of tax collection, estimated that the problems generated by July’s earthquakes would lower the tax income to the equivalent of about US$23,600.
The situation is much more serious in the Meseta, where the population is smaller, the municipal administrations have fewer obligations and the inhabitants’ economic situation is even more squalid. Normally, Catarina’s municipal government has an average monthly income of only 6,500 córdobas (some $500), which means that it cannot respond even to the most elemental needs generated by an emergency. The mayors of neighboring towns are in the same boat, and thus asked the central government to advance them the transfers it sends to the municipal governments every three and four months.
Against the logic of people’s immediate needs, but very much in keeping with how a considerable part of the funds made available in the wake of Hurricane Mitch was allocated, the government identified the main requirement in response to this emergency as road construction; improving existing routes and opening up new access roads to increase tourism in the area. In other words, the aim was to restore access to the luxurious residences that have sprung up along the banks of the lake. The status enjoyed by Lake Apoyo and its neighboring areas as a protected area has not been respected by ministers, former ministers and other high-ranking officials from the last three administrations. They continue to build holiday homes and roads in the area, increasing the vulnerability of the lake basin’s slopes by digging up the tree roots that help bind these fragile soils.
The President speaks: "Nothing happened here"But while many roads are planned, the housing supply is nowhere near covering the demand. The Nicaraguan Industry and Commerce Bank (BANIC) promised a project to provide houses measuring 36 square meters. "They’re saying now that they’ll charge only what we can afford to pay every month, but later they’ll turn the screws" was the suspicious response of one potential project beneficiary. Many semi-destroyed houses have been declared fit to live in, so in one sector of Valle de Laguna where 453 houses were affected, they are only talking of building 80 new houses. Meanwhile, INATEC’s promise of another 23 houses is helping to increase the supply, but also adding to the inhabitants’ confusion over what selection criteria will be applied.
The affected population feels generally helpless and does not know where to turn. As one person from La Ermita explained: "Nobody is helping us. We’re left out in the sun and wind. They told us they weren’t going to help us, that the aid was coming just for the people by the lake. The councilor from here has done nothing and the local leaders have been terrible. Not even the political parties have shown their faces, although they’ll soon turn up when they want our votes."
The members of the local emergency committees have borrowed time from work and family commitments to serve their communities as best they can under the circumstances. In Diriomito, the inhabitants took the initiative and formed their own committee, dividing it into various subcommittees for coordination, census, health, supplies, communications, basic services, transport and support. They were particularly helped by Ticuantepe’s priest and by traders from Managua’s Israel Lewites Market. According to committee member José Ramón Ruiz, the state has done a disappearing act. "We haven’t received any aid from the central or local governments. We held two meetings with the Masaya municipal government, on Monday July 10 and Thursday July 13. It promised us provisions, but nothing has come so far. They haven’t helped us as promised and we feel like we’ve been tricked." Another member of the committee added, "President Alemán came here to the Diriomito mirador, overlooking the lake, got out and said, ‘Nothing happened here.’ Maybe he wanted to see dead bodies strewn around. But it’s one thing to drive along the road, and quite another to get out of the car and take the paths into the boonies. That’s where you see the real catastrophe. That’s why his government isn’t supporting us, and it doesn’t even lie to us, which is just as well, because false promises only build false hopes." During an emergency, sensitivity and effectiveness are put to the test in the first few days after the disaster has struck. Recent events have only served to reconfirm the donor community’s growing suspicions in this respect.
A capital lack of solidarityIn some places the inhabitants were supported by volunteer doctors with very little equipment and medicine. The reaction from teachers in the disaster zones varied; some stayed, giving up their unexpected vacation to help, while others left terrified. Although a lot of aid came from private individuals who decided to distribute their aid directly, without state or nongovernmental intermediaries, the inhabitants of the department of Masaya were bitterly disappointed by what they saw as a lack of solidarity from their Managua neighbors.
Masaya’s population still recalls the earthquake of December 22, 1972 when they threw open their houses to the many homeless Managuans. But there has been no such general expression of solidarity in the aftermath of the Masaya earthquake. The times they are a-changing, but is it for the better? Now, everything is in the increasingly invisible hands of the state, the insufficient hands of the NGOs and the iron hands of the market. Discontent has even spread among supporters of the ruling PLC. "They’re just knocking down the semi-destroyed houses by hand, without proper demolition equipment," they complained. Not even the rich owners of the chalets located on the banks of Lake Apoyo have seen fit to help the neighbors who watch over their properties in their absence. The "magnates," as they are known, are too wrapped up in campaigning to ensure that even the roads leading to their summer houses are adequately repaired.
The NGO response and female vulnerabilityThe NGOs are strongly critical of treating those affected as charity cases who are given aid without having their decision-making power taken into account. In response, a group of local NGOs got together to form the Masaya Civil Coordinator to carry out actions favoring the three thousand affected families using aid provided by international cooperation. The initiative groups together 28 organizations, including UNAG, the local Women’s Collective, MASINFA, CEPAD, World Vision, COPROSA, Communal Movement, Masaya Women’s Center, Red Cross, Nakawe Foundation, Ixchen, ADESO and the Christian Base Communities. The rehabilitation work will consist of three phases—emergency, reconstruction and development—and the affiliated organizations will coordinate joint activities according to each one’s specialty, be it disaster prevention, housing, mental health, food security or job creation. All activities will have three crosscutting themes: the environment, community ethics and gender.
Why is a gender focus so important? Many people, particularly men, insist that it is just a fad, but that is not the case. Particularly during a disaster, women are more vulnerable than men. Worse still, the men in their own families are the ones who make them more vulnerable. Women social workers belonging to a Masayan NGO observed that the women in the emergency shelters "were busy with domestic chores while their husbands were getting drunk." Similar attitudes were observed during Mitch. Because "boys don’t cry," when men are driven to it by their powerlessness in the face of a disaster, they tend to "balance up" their emotional imbalance, which they do not know how to handle, by abusing their power. Studies demonstrate that both violence against women and children and sexual violence rise sharply during emergencies caused by natural disasters.
In response to the Coordinator’s pluralist initiative, which involves organizations of all political stripes but is distanced from the governing party, the PLC decided to set up its own NGO as a political counterbalance. The Citizens Alliance, which is designed to seal the much-predicted Liberal victory in the city of flowers, as Masaya is known, is represented by the PLC mayor of Masaya, Carlos Hüeck Nuñez, grandson of Cornelio Hüeck, the infamous lieutenant of dictator Anatasio Somoza García.
A fragile institutionality built on shaky groundIn La Ermita, a group of Red Cross volunteers were teaching games to earthquake-affected children next to the chapel under a palm-leaf shelter. The children turn up tumultuously, drawn by the promise of candies. "It’s psychosocial therapy" explained one of the youngsters, already familiar with the terminology.
After the wave of tremors, the zone was hit by a wave of censuses. The Civil Defense Force, the state’s housing bank (BAVINIC) and technological support institute (INATEC) and various NGOs measured the houses, building up expectations and the decibel level of the confusion. "They’re drawn by the smell of death," said one cynical inhabitant. Technicians turned up, scratching their heads as they wondered if trucks could navigate the narrow paths to deposit the building materials. Since there is no way they could, it may be the real reason for the delays in the repair and construction of houses.
Surveys and tape measures come and go. Officials from the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER) point out where nothing should be built from now on, but do not specify where people should build, when the relocation process will start—if there is one—and at whose expense, or which institution will be responsible. Perhaps this is why there is so much scratching of heads. Meanwhile, some officials talk not of relocations, but of avoiding population growth in the zones most crisscrossed by seismic faults.
The local emergency committees have really made an effort to obtain aid. They have knocked and kicked on and even forced open all kinds of doors. But although they are trying to establish themselves, local institutionality is built on shaky ground. The aid is filtering through so many cracks that much of it doesn’t even get past the first sections of the channel supposedly designed to carry it to the affected population. At times the channel is narrow and only has the capacity for very limited amounts, and when no aid is flowing, the system tends to clog up and has to be rebuilt altogether.
The obstacles of religious polarizationReligious polarization represents the most patent obstacle in La Ermita. Most people recognize that the evangelicals have really got their act together. Civil Defense formed an emergency committee in this sector with the help of the evangelical church, but the fact that each visit from an evangelical delegation laden with donations has involved a loud and joyful religious service has aroused the fierce jealously of a group of Catholics.
As the tremors destroyed the evangelical church, the celebrations were held in the small square next to the Catholic church, which the Catholic congregation interpreted as an outright act of provocation. In this climate of suspicion, the non-sectarian distribution of donations has been viewed as Machiavellian proselytism rather than ecumenical solidarity.
Pentecostal Church of God pastor Juan Carlos Dávila tried to clear up the misunderstanding: "It’s true that one of our celebrations coincided with the celebration of Communion. I explained to them that it wasn’t a case of sectarianism; I apologized and asked permission to hold the service after the Catholic Mass. What happened was that the square filled with people converting to the Lord and accepting Christ. It was all very joyous because the brothers that were visiting us brought aid and words of hope. There were also Catholics present who sought God during a moment of Biblical reflection."
Catholic parishioner Carlos Méndez agreed with that version: "They formed a Catholic committee that isn’t doing anything and didn’t want to merge with the committee formed by Civil Defense, which has a majority of evangelicals on it. The Catholics claimed that the evangelicals were favoring their own faithful in retaliation for what Posoltega’s parish priest did during Hurricane Mitch. But that was at the beginning. I’m a Catholic and I’ve received aid, because when the sun comes out it warms us all, Moors and Christians, good and bad, intelligent and ignorant, workers and loafers. Like the sun, this aid is a blessing from God. I don’t think the Moors will abandon their faith and become Christians just because they received aid."
Too many chiefs and not enough committeesAnother common factor bogging down the emergency operations in the affected communities was the lack of emergency committees. Emergency committees get invented and reinvented with each new disaster so despite the best of intentions many make elementary mistakes. The structures created many years ago by the FSLN have been growing weaker. Violeta Chamorro’s government recycled the Sandinista Defense Committees into District Committees then the PLC broom came along and swept the local structures out of many districts altogether. The existence of a National Emergency Committee amounts to very little if its influence dissipates the closer it gets to earth. Municipal governments in rural areas unaffected by Hurricane Mitch in October 1998 have done nothing to create emergency committees.
But where there are funds, local leaders abound. It’s not surprising, as the majority of families have been living in the zone for over 40 years and know everything and everyone. Each NGO, party and state entity has its own hotbed of leaders. The problem is that in an emergency each institution, faced with a multitude of leaders, gathers together "its" own, channeling the aid through them and trying to position them at the head of the emergency committee and have them adopt the structures that the officials of the given administration have in mind. Given this division of efforts, one cannot help wonder if the people, the real people of the municipality, have any leaders other than those who legitimize an organization imposed from outside and its ephemeral financing.
The result of having such a wide range of leaders bumping into each other is the unorganized, random distribution of aid. Each NGO does what occurs to it, sidestepping weak local structures. The same is true of the different churches. That’s the way things work. In one town, a red microbus bearing a sign saying "The Good Shepherd" parks next to the church. The door opens and a priest gets out. He’s easily recognizable in his long-sleeved, black, roman-collared shirt, walking with a stiff gait designed to project solemnity. After contemplating the sunken sides of the church, he initiates the chaotic distribution of aid to whoever happens to be near. Sneakers, candies and items of clothing start flowing from doors and windows of the bus. After a few minutes when the multitude is threatening to swamp the "donors," the microbus suddenly pulls away, its passengers having assuaged their conscience through this act of "solidarity."
Some institutions adopt another attitude. World Neighbors concentrated on forming a committee in Diriomito to help channel their own and other contributions. And the Masaya Civil Coordinator is trying to coordinate joint actions. So more strategic steps are beginning to be taken and it is to be hoped that they leave a lasting mark.
Attend unexpected victims or solve chronic victimization?The aid has also run up against a recurrent dilemma: whether to provide an immediate solution or try to transform the age-old and stubborn problem of poverty. Should it attend to sudden damages or chronic damage, to long-term needs or those recently caused by the catastrophe? Faced with this underlying dilemma, the institutions engage in debates that tend to reveal their lack of a defined profile more than a will to help the poor. Disaster prevention is the big loser in these turbulent waters, because the issue of development is again imposed and blocks out any other requirement. The fallacy, which is becoming a callous one in this area, consists of assuming that any action that reduces vulnerability is linked to the fight against poverty and that fighting against poverty is enough to save us from natural disasters. This is not the case. Prevention is a specific issue that is not linked only to poverty, although it is true that not providing a specific place for prevention naturally reflects a serious poverty of ideas.
"God knows what he is doing"The problem is also cultural. Some perceptions of reality are paralyzing and do not encourage preventive measures. Why prevent anything? In the world of poverty and the impoverished, fatalism can dominate will. Josefa Dávila is convinced that "God never makes mistakes. If the earthquake had come at night, we would all be lined up at the cemetery. Or better still, they would have cremated us all." The future is just as certain: "And what will we do now? Start again. It’s enough to be alive. God knows what he’s doing." At least her predestination theory is not a paralyzing one, because she still has the energy to "start again," although this eternal Sisyphean task takes its toll in sweat and tears.
But many also claim there is no point doing anything because "You can’t escape death when it comes for you. Nobody dies before their time." For those who think this way, preventive measures are irrelevant and the search for safer places amounts to useless agitation. Some modern "development theoreticians" idealize the endogenous, local cosmological vision, forgetting that such visions are socially constructed and not purely endogenous. In fact, they are partly induced by poorly educated priests, opportunist bosses, populist leaders and a culturally rooted and extremely paralyzing machismo.
No coincidence that it’s the year 2000The intervals between natural disasters have been reduced over the last decade throughout the world, and Nicaragua is no exception to the rule. This is an indisputable fact, although specialists are divided over its statistical significance and possible attribution to a circumstantial situation in which worldwide processes such as global warning combine with national effects. Given the increasing frequency of disasters and catastrophes, the population often comes up with millenarian-type conclusions, an apocalyptic fatalism that does little to help the coordination of preventive programs centered on the causes of vulnerability.
The affected population’s explanations of the Masaya disaster were plagued with such fatalist and predestined elements. "It was already written because the end of the world is nigh. It’s no coincidence that we’re in the year 2000," as one inhabitant put it, "and God is good because he didn’t just kill us all."
Many people are examining even the most insignificant pre-earthquake happenings, like soothsayers deciphering the guts of a sacrificed animal, hunting for unheeded warning signs of the coming catastrophe. A number of lake-side inhabitants recall the presence of foreigners who warned local fishermen of the imminent danger: "They already knew that an earthquake was coming!" Others tell how locals are attributing the events to local myths and legends, such as the forest at the bottom of the lake: "Maybe some of the leafy trees below the water fell down, or maybe some of the rocks on the mountain that they say is down there came crashing down."
A valuable studySuch fatalism and superstition blended with science when INETER, the government’s institute of territorial studies, later turned up "reading" the earth. In fact, some "foreigners" had indeed been examining the earth and making obviously ominous forecasts, but that was two years, not a couple of days, before the earthquake. Their efforts resulted in a document titled "Geological Study and Recognition of the Geological Threat in the Masaya and Granada Area " (1998), which gathers the results of joint research by INETER and the Czech Geological Institute from Prague. The study includes a complex evaluation of the volcanic zone’s geological structures in the Depression of Nicaragua and an evaluation of the geological and natural dangers around large cities such as Managua, Masaya, Granada and Nandaime.
The work involved studies of the area’s geology, vulcanology and soil and the extension, density and structure of its rocks. Czech cooperation financed the research with the aim of improving geological knowledge of the area and providing information for territorial planning and construction work. The study was supposed to play an important part in preventing the destructive consequences of natural phenomena through the establishment and dissemination of geological criteria that could be applied to urban development. It was also designed to mitigate the effects of disasters by determining appropriate evacuation routes.
The area covered by the study turned out to be the same area affected by the recent seismic activity: the zone between Nicaragua’s two big lakes, Cocibolca (or Nicaragua) and Xolotlán (or Managua). Many of the towns there are located on top of vast deposits of pumice stone that originated from ancient eruptions of the Apoyo volcano. This volcano was destroyed some 23,000 years ago in a massive eruption that spewed up pumice stone around the area where a lake would form thousands of years later. It is hard to believe that the blue mirror of Lake Apoyo is a memento of such a colossal "natural disaster."
This area is sitting on what geologists term "calderas": ancient volcanic centers that are currently undergoing intense processes of subsidence due to the downward movement of vast blocks hidden under relatively young volcanic deposits. The frequent seismic activity in this area is caused by instability around the edges of the calderas. The area’s high population density increases the risk of disaster and the study does not rule out the possible reactivation of Apoyo’s volcanic structure. Towns affected this time, such as Diriá, Diriomo and San Juan de Oriente, are located at the meeting point of the Carazo and Apoyo calderas, where the subsidence of the tectonic plates could become very intense, representing a potentially fatal threat.
The study states that the city of Masaya is at greatest risk because it is located at the meeting point of three calderas. The city and its surrounding area lie on a surface formed by a powerful pyroclastic flow that covers a highly unstable and still developing system of tectonic blocks. In addition, the soils in the Masaya area are not very firm, which is why the tremors shattered the floors of houses in Valle de Laguna. One lake-side inhabitant recalls that INETER personnel told him years ago that "we are over a fault line. As I see it, there’s a crack in the earth. With this earthquake, the earth opened up easily, because all of this earth was moved, it’s like landfill, really loose earth."
The fact that the soil’s foundation is volcanic and relatively young, has a fragile contexture and is exposed to both external and subterranean erosion means that it is not easy to live on these land expanses. The thin epidermis does little to hide the internal decomposition, fractures and multiple contusions.
One of the world’s most seismic countriesA large part of Nicaraguan territory is marked by the internal and unhealed openings know as fault lines. The Mesoamerican Trough runs parallel to the country’s Pacific coastline, just 150 km out to sea. From time immemorial that great geological accident marking the intersection between the Cocos and Caribbean tectonic plates has implied tension between different forces, friction, ruptures and the fusion of rocks, all of which cause major earthquakes.
Up until half a century ago no exhaustive recording had been made of the strength of these telluric movements, but modern apparatuses now enable us to know the true force of this activity. Between 1975 and 1982, INETER’s 16 stations and 20 accelerographs detected 11,000 seismic movements in Nicaraguan territory. In the next three years it registered 4,000 tremors, most of them imperceptible to the population.
Between 1528 and 1998 Nicaraguan experienced no less than 136 violent tremors, which produced significant human and material damage. These large movements can be classified as major tremors—those associated with large plate movements, which recur every 30 to 50 years—and minor tremors linked to faults in the volcanic chain and with an average frequency of 10.8 years. These figures place Nicaragua among the countries with the highest seismic indices in the world. However, the tremors that hit Nicaraguan cities most often are not extremely intense. None has registered more than 6.9 on the Richter scale. The most devastating earthquake in our history, which occurred in December 1972 in Managua, registered only 5.9 and yet it destroyed the capital. It caused 11,000 deaths and left 20,000 people injured and 250,000 homeless, while 75% of the city’s houses were destroyed or left uninhabitable in an affected area of 27 sq km. According to a study done for a Swedish NGO by Jaime Wheelock, Jaime Incer Barquero and Lorenzo Cardenal, "The catastrophic damage caused by this kind of earthquake is attributed to the fact that the main population settlements lie on the Lakes Depression, where the lands are more fragile and more fractured. The poor and inadequate construction systems are another reason."
No budget, no willAfter looking at the INETER map where the different types of faults are represented by distinct kinds of dotted lines, Diriomo Mayor Francisco Campos concluded, "This region looks like a papaya after it’s been scored for eating. I’m really worried." On a recent visit, the Czech technicians identified the undeniable but unrealizable solution: everyone should move to the Caribbean coast. The records show that between 1997 and 1998 only 1.8% of the country’s tremors occurred in the northern central and Caribbean zones. The northeast of the Caribbean plain is considered to be free from seismic activity due to its location on a stable area of the Caribbean plate with fewer faults and deformities.
The impossibility of ordering and carrying out such a massive migration makes it important to demand the rigorous implementation of construction norms and ensure that the cities expand toward safer areas. It is essential to be aware, for example, that the current erosion is taking place on accumulations of unconsolidated volcanic deposits and is facilitated by the looseness and permeability of those deposits. Runoff washes away fine volcanic particles, gradually forming caves that are isolated at first, but unite over time to form large caverns. Tremors could cause these cavities to cave in, thus increasing the negative effects. Meanwhile in the area most affected by the recent earthquakes, houses tended to crack up because of the instability of their foundations. The area between Lake Apoyo and Lake Cocibolca is very susceptible to subterranean erosion as it lies on the drainage line of these water masses with the result that the effects of the tremors will probably always be felt more strongly there.
Unfortunately, many people will continue to ignore all the warnings. The fact is that there is no budget and little will. State officials, who should have sounded the warning bells some time ago, remain in a state of comfortable indolence. For them, Lake Apoyo is a place to spend their holidays rather than somewhere where disaster prevention measures should be applied.
That’s why the Czech mission’s document has been put in cold storage for the last two years. Nobody even had the chance to look this particular gift horse in the mouth because it was immediately dispatched to some dusty shelf where it was quietly laid to rest.
It has become a habit in the state institutions for studies and surveys financed by foreign cooperation to be immediately buried in this way. They are not even put on sale for the benefit of interested citizens. If information is power, then a new form of illiteracy is being imposed in Nicaragua.
Nine out of ten houses are badly builtThe theory that poor construction increases the effects of a disaster is not hard to prove. Nicaragua has a construction code but it is not respected and infractions are never sanctioned. According to the Nicaraguan Chamber of Construction, no less than 90% of the country’s houses are badly built and were not supervised by a professional builder. This is even more worrying when one considers that most of the buildings in the Pacific region have been erected on fault lines.
Wood was the typical construction material in medieval Spain; even the roof tiles were made of wood. For a time not even fortresses were built entirely of stone. During the 15th-century wars in Spain it became "fashionable" to raze entire towns by burning them down. When these wars came to an end, new municipal norms imposed that houses be built of materials less vulnerable to fire. The conquest and colonization exported this particular model to Nicaragua and the rest of Latin America, and the need to display one’s status ensured that the majority of the population used it. The greater durability of stone, brick and taquezal constructions only served to reinforce the historical trend.
Ephemeral houses of taquezal and quarry stoneMany houses in Masaya and throughout the Meseta de los Pueblos—the zone affected by this year’s earthquakes—are made of taquezal and bricks. Taquezal consists of a wooden framework filled in with rough-cut stones piled up into a kind of unordered rubblework. The size of the stones is not a deciding factor, no instruments are employed to ensure a flush surface and everything is bound together by a mud-based mortar, which provides a relatively short-lived cohesion. A large percentage of the houses that collapsed during the Masaya quakes were old taquezal buildings.
In the rural area, the very popular cuarterón brick—a mass of baked clay in the form of a parallelepiped—has been gradually replaced by quarry stone. While the industrial revolution in Europe made the spread of bricks possible since clay was much more abundant than building stone, the abundance of such stone in the villages on the banks of Lake Apoyo has turned this material into a key and almost exclusive construction material. As one Valle de Laguna dweller proudly put it, "Quarry stone construction was invented here."
The zone’s inhabitants are openly proud of the area’s most abundant mineral resource, which was spewed up by volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago. A block of 10"x15" quarry stone costs ten córdobas (about US$0.80) and is manually hewn from the quarries with great metal wedges. There are two kinds: blue stone, which is very compact and impermeable, and pumice stone, which some people call talpuja. The latter can be directly extracted as stone from the many volcanic deposits but it is more often manufactured into cinder block by combining coarse pumice sand with cement. One well-established way to cut expenses is to reduce the amount of cement and increase the amount of sand, a readily available ingredient that only involves transport costs. The cost effectiveness of this practice was all too evident in the recent collapse of local buildings. People tend to prefer pumice stone over the blue stone due to pumice’s porosity. The assumption is that this makes it more receptive to the cement mortar and thus assures firmer and more durable joints, but in practice pumice’s fragile texture means it crumbles more easily, particularly if the blocks made with it skimped on cement.
Quality depends on the builder and the pocketbookThe contradiction between the need to eat and the need for safe housing can create deadly construction in poor communities. As Francisco Campos, Diriomo’s mayor, noted, "People make houses out of blocks with no columns in the corners, just overlapping the stones instead. They use iron reinforcement rods inadequately; for example, as iron is getting increasingly expensive, they sometimes use only two loose thin rods in the girder instead of four strong ones tied into a column. Or for the foundation they just lay a narrow quarry stone perimeter and put the columns right on top of it without putting a reinforced footed foundation beam down first."
Typical houses in this area have a few small windows, two doors, clay roof tiles—which are being increasingly replaced by corrugated sheet metal—and walls made of taquezal, cement blocks, cuarterón bricks, adobe, blue quarry stone or pumice stone. The adobe houses are old with walls that are not plumb and are often misshapen because their perimeters were poorly laid out and did not align. If cinder blocks are used, they are often not laid straight, making the wall surfaces uneven, and the limited amount of cement used in the mixture makes the blocks as crumbly as giant pieces of lump sugar. Meanwhile, the red clay roof tiles tend to get slimy with tropical moss and are liable to slip away from their rickety supports.
"There is no supervision from the municipal council," stressed José Dávila from Plan de Laguna. "The construction process depends on the builder’s knowledge and they often do a shoddy job. The economic difficulties force them to build in the cheapest possible way." Many builders are also self-taught, starting from childhood, and have picked up tricks of the trade over the years, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.
The Diriomo municipal government has come up with a proposal that could be a first step toward solving this chronic problem. Mayor Campos, who has the experience of three consecutive terms in office and is sought out by everyone needing answers to even the most intimate tribulations, has been working on the proposal with a disaster prevention, mitigation and response committee created two weeks before the tremors hit. On the committee are representatives from the municipal government, the emergency operations center and the health, supplies, infrastructure and transport, environmental and natural resources and consumer defense commissions. Mayor Campos explained the initiative this way: "We don’t want the citizens to restore their houses using the same inadequate techniques. We have suggested to INETER that the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure organize training seminars for masons, design an educational primer on construction and draw up a building code. Unfortunately, municipal governments have no team to supervise constructions right now. The building permit is granted based just on verifying the boundary line, not a building plan, and there’s no construction supervision whatever. The problem is that people build badly because they don’t have the money to do otherwise. That’s how a badly-planned economy works."
The problem is economicAs is often the case in many other issues and on many other occasions, the problem, as Mayor Campos correctly identified it, is indeed an economic one. The best recommendations, the most thoroughgoing studies and the plans bursting with good intentions all run straight up against this wall. According to ecologist Lorenzo Cardenal, "The location of human settlements is decided by economic, social and political factors. A country’s human settlement system has a territorial logic determined by the history of the population’s occupation of the territory and by the resources the physical and natural environment provide. Thus the distribution of the main and secondary cities and of towns and villages expresses the evolution of the economic, social and political forces that have shaped our nation’s history." The natural wealth of the Meseta de los Pueblos, its water sources and its strategic position in relation to the country’s most important urban centers have been attractive enough to stimulate population growth there, despite the risks involved.
Managua is in an even more compromising position, yet there is no thought of moving this capital city, despite the recurrent catastrophes. The area it is built on is a veritable spider web of active tectonic fault lines whose devastating effects are potentially multiplied by the poor population’s terrible construction systems and the accelerated rate of urban growth. To top it all, its location in a valley and its deficient drainage systems make it extremely susceptible to flooding.
Adaptability is the key to preventionRecent developments in the field of ecology suggest that local environments should not in fact be viewed as stable and balanced ecosystems, but as landscapes that emerge as the result of dynamic and variable ecological processes, undergo constant changes and are subject to disturbing events in interaction with human intervention. Rather than just seeing environmental problems as an imbalance between communities and their resources, with the implicit supposition that a pre-existing and natural balance could and should be reestablished, any measures proposed should go beyond the notion of technically ideal territorial planning. They have to start considering that since the kind of risks a settlement is vulnerable to depends on its location, the building technology employed will play a large role in determining the degree of that vulnerability. As Lorenzo Cardenal explained, "the key concept for interpreting the social management of physical vulnerability is what we call ‘adaptability,’ which in other words means a community’s ability to absorb the changes that a disaster causes in its particular milieu."
While this may seem absurdly self-evident, little in fact has been done in Nicaragua to increase the adaptability of populations living in risk conditions. No attention is paid to these risks in urban planning, road and drainage infrastructure or construction methods. Cities are being built randomly and people can erect a building any way they want without paying any attention to possible disasters. The construction norms that do exist are not even known let alone applied, and the government exhibits no sense of need to disseminate them. Even if the government did make an effort to get people to know about and appreciate the importance of building norms and appropriate techniques, money talks and lack of money silences. The low-income levels of the majority of the population immediately hobble any good initiative.
When it comes to earthquakes, the disaster prevention problem is directly related to the possibility of having a safe and decent house, and that is mainly defined by the family’s income. The procedures for obtaining such a house or making improvements on an existing one are not only related to the monetary economy. In rural areas and marginalized urban areas, social relations and connections, such as being related to a builder, can be just as important. It is necessary to learn and understand the rationale that guides those with extremely limited resources when they set about to build or make improvements on a house. This rationale attempts to compensate for the institutional and financial weaknesses of both the country and the interested party. Understanding it is thus an essential step in realizing that disaster prevention in the area of housing involves loans for property, research aimed at developing new materials and the training of good building workers, among other factors.
The problem is also politicalThe mayors of the affected zones are clear that the low-income sectors should receive state assistance to guarantee that the building materials and construction methods they employ are appropriate for the risks to which they are exposed. Meanwhile, INETER’s technicians are proposing to implement a territorial plan that would distribute the population to areas less affected by faults. Up to now, cities have been growing rapidly and in an unordered sprawl.
The problem is also a political one. It is obvious that the country’s political reality, including the PLC-FSLN pact, has created a context in which good land is being concentrated back in few hands. This limits the available land on which most people can build to areas by the big estates and the outskirts not yet touched by the land-guzzling mentality that spurs on powerful landlords, both old and new. This mentality is currently detected in abundance among Liberals, Conservatives, Sandinistas, partners of powerful landlords who arrive with a similarly voracious appetite from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico... The current recomposition of economic groups in Nicaragua is also playing its part in this. In short, the rumbling bowels of Masaya have revealed many, many lessons to those willing to learn...