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Death and disbelief in a hard-hit city

As Pisco, Peru, recovers and buries its quake dead, stunned residents complain that aid is slow to reach them.

August 18, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

PISCO, PERU — It's a war zone here, a jumble of smashed buildings, downed power lines and dazed inhabitants.

Authorities have bolstered police patrols after reports of looters attacking vehicles ferrying aid to the earthquake zone.

"People are just completely demoralized," said Maria Consuelo Vargas, as she and hundreds of others gathered Friday in the central Plaza de Armas to watch rescue workers combing through the debris of what once was San Clemente Roman Catholic Church.

As if on cue, firemen pulled another black body bag from the rubble of the church, eliciting a stunned gasp from residents bewildered by their town's fate.

All day, rescue workers had been retrieving corpses from the ruins, yelling "adult male" or "female child" or "woman" to anxious loved ones waiting in the plaza for word on the missing.

The latest body brought the number of dead to 85 at San Clemente, according to media accounts here, leaving the church the single deadliest spot in the 8.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Peru on Wednesday. At least 486 people were killed, according to the last official count. President Alan Garcia said the death toll would rise above 500. An estimated 1,500 people have been injured, about one-third seriously.

The temblor struck as evening services were being held on the Roman Catholic holy day of the Assumption. The concrete roof caved in on church-goers at San Clemente, trapping victims in the rubble. Casualties were reported at other damaged churches as well.

Pisco, a coastal city 155 miles south of Lima, the capital, and surrounding areas accounted for about 70% of the government's tally of the dead.

Large amounts of aid began arriving Friday in Pisco, but distribution remained a problem. Much of the aid -- including food, water, medical supplies and clothing -- was ferried via military and police aircraft through a nearby Peruvian air force base.

Residents and others have complained about the slow pace of aid, and looters have become a problem. Taxi drivers warn visitors of lurking thieves in a city where all order seems to have collapsed. Reports have circulated of bands of robbers targeting shops and aid vehicles.

President Garcia urged residents not to succumb to "exaggerated desperation," while hecklers in the crowd shouted they had been abandoned by the government.

Conversations with residents in the quake-ravaged zone here revealed deep misgivings about the pace of the government's actions. There is still no regular electricity, phone service or reliable water supply. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, have been left homeless.

Just south of Pisco, Peruvian officials arrived Friday in a pair of helicopters to provide help to one of many rural communities that had yet to receive any aid. The helicopters landed on a patch of grass next to a bridge that had buckled in the quake, backing up traffic for miles along the main north-south route.

"We want water!' We want food!" people chanted, complaining that they had been without aid for two days. "We want something!"

Authorities acknowledged that the aid process has been chaotic. Damaged roads have hampered aid efforts.

"It's been especially hard to get to some of the rural areas," Interior Minister Luis Alva Castro said after he landed in a helicopter laden with cartons of water.

Residents were soon besieging the interior minister, pleading for more help.

On a bluff above the near-dry Pisco River lay the ruins of their adobe homes. People said they had eaten little and were freezing as they slept outside in the Southern Hemisphere winter.

"We've seen absolutely nothing from the government, nothing," said San Pedro Salvatierra, who held up a piece of paper with the names of more than 200 area residents he said had lost their homes. "We are in dire need here. We are worried for our children. We need tents, food, water."

The pleas seemed to overwhelm the interior minister, who soon called for people to line up for the water giveaway. He promised more help would arrive soon.

"OK," Alva said, "we'll ship in 5,000 blankets."

He said the government's aid efforts "were extremely well organized" and officials were working on how best to allocate the huge amount of foreign aid arriving in Peru.

From the window of a helicopter, visitors here see an Iraq-like desert tableau of wrecked houses, dusty palms and vast expanses of brown earth, occasionally broken by irrigation-fed ribbons of green.

This used to be a quiet seaside town best known for its fishing industry and its namesake libation, pisco, a South American grappa that is Peru's national liquor, the essential ingredient in the ubiquitous party drink, the pisco sour.

Now, this city of 130,000 has become synonymous with catastrophe and mourning, a place with a shattered present and dark future.

"What are we going to do now?" asked Gino Contreras, a hotel worker who was among the shellshocked multitudes gathered in the central plaza, watching the grim labor at San Clemente. "What's next for Pisco?"

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