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'Epicenter of Misery' Losing Hope for Rescue From Effects of Quake : Costa Rica: The coastal province that suffered most in April's temblor sees a return to the authorities' old neglect now that banana exports are humming again.

May 25, 1991|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LIMON, Costa Rica — In the days after a killer earthquake ripped up its southern Caribbean coastline, Costa Rica hurriedly repaired the docks that launch its most valuable export--bananas--to the rest of the world.

The 107-mile highway to San Jose, the highland capital, was bustling with commerce a week later, thanks to the prompt repair of four damaged bridges. The country's sole oil refinery was pumping again, only briefly interrupted by a quake-induced fire.

But five times since the April 22 disaster, which cracked Limon's aging underground mains, the city hospital has run out of water, pushing overworked doctors to the point of rebellion.

"The authorities have their priorities all wrong," complained Dr. Roberto Cantillo Hernandez, who has worked much of the past month swatting flies drawn to the hospital by the stench of unwashed linens and unflushed toilets. "There is more to Limon than the bananas and the highway and the docks."

A lingering water shortage in most of this ramshackle port city is a sign to many of its 60,000 residents that the rest of Costa Rica is again turning its back on their poverty now that their task of picking and moving bananas has resumed.

The quake, with a 7.4 magnitude, killed 62 people in Limon province, Costa Rica's poorest, and 32 in neighboring Panama. It trashed dozens of towns, tore up roads, downed utility lines, ran off dollar-spending tourists and swept away acres of woods in mudslides above the coasts of both countries.

With emergency food donations now reaching the still-isolated hamlets south of Limon, the brunt of suffering in Costa Rica has fallen on the estimated 10,000 homeless, many of whom sleep in leaky tents, and on the slums that make up 18 of Limon's 23 neighborhoods. There, with potable water supplies interrupted by quake damage, people have turned to polluted rivers or contaminated wells, ignoring official pleas to boil the water they drink.

"Every time they repair one leak (in the water system), they discover another one just down the pipe," said Delroy Barton, secretary of the National Emergency Commission formed here to cope with the disaster.

At least 100 people, mostly children, turned up this week at the hospital with diarrhea, more than triple the pre-quake rate. Public schools remain closed for lack of water. Doctors fighting to control outbreaks of measles and malaria amid the mounting human waste are warning that cholera cannot be far behind.

"The quake has ripped open the body of Limon, exposing its cancer," Jorge Rodriguez Araya, one of the city's four representatives to the national Legislative Assembly, told visiting lawmakers from San Jose. Rumbo, a national news magazine, featured a cover story on Limon under the headline "Epicenter of Misery."

Costa Rica's Hispanic, coffee-growing ruling class long ignored the Afro-Caribbean settlers of Limon province's tropical swamps. Political scientists suggest that the highlanders' motive was to thwart the emergence of a powerful native banana-producing elite. For decades, San Jose left Limon's development--its schools, housing and health care--in the hands of foreign banana companies.

Limon's poverty deepened after a banana blight prompted foreign companies to leave in the 1930s and stay away until the 1970s. The few gains made since--a paved highway, drinkable water, even the 207-bed hospital--have resulted from mass citizen protests and general strikes. As the rest of Costa Rica prospered in the glow of President Oscar Arias Sanchez's 1987 Nobel Peace Prize, Limon lagged behind--a Third World enclave in a nation with European living standards. Today it suffers more than triple the national rates of illiteracy, unemployment, malnutrition and drug addiction, while shouldering a new banana boom that earns 65% of the country's export dollars.

Limon punished Arias' National Liberation Party for its neglect by giving rival candidate Rafael Angel Calderon his widest vote margin in winning last year's presidential election. After a year of unfulfilled promises by the Calderon administration, some Limon residents view the quake as a mixed blessing: a jolt that might unleash a flood of largess to develop the coast in earnest.

"This earthquake is the most powerful protest strike Limon has ever staged," declared Walter Cespedes while driving through nearby Matina, where he is town manager. He said this with a mixture of hope for national pity and awe at the force that killed 20 townspeople in collapsed houses.

The quake, which occurred on Earth Day, confounded seismologists. It opened an unmapped fault in the Estrella Valley and pushed the coastline four feet higher than the sea, causing the water to recede permanently by about 100 yards and exposing coral to die in the sun.

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