- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 19, 2010

PISCO, Peru | It’s been two years since Pisco was destroyed, two years since a 7.9-magnitude earthquake killed 596 people and reduced this gritty, poverty-ravaged fishing town to a maze of rubble and garbage and corpses.

In the days just after the quake on Aug. 15, 2007, thousands of rescuers, aid workers and government officials flocked to the area. Millions of dollars in aid flowed in. Plans were quickly drawn up to help survivors, put up tens of thousands of earthquake-resistant homes and rebuild the main regional hospital. Pisco, they said, would be built anew.

They were wrong.

The world is full of good intentions in the days after a disaster, when footage of crying parents fills television screens and aid workers rush in to help. That’s the case right now with Haiti, where a 7.0-magnitude earthquake last Tuesday killed thousands of people and devastated the country.

Sometimes, the good intentions last for years, turning scenes of tragedy into case studies of how countries far away can rally around those in need. But in places like Pisco such intentions can wither in weeks — killed by corruption, dithering bureaucrats and political disputes.

Today, many of the streets of Pisco are still full of rubble. Thousands of survivors still live in shacks. Thousands more have left. That new hospital? Construction hasn’t even begun.

“The state has forgotten us,” said Medalit Diaz, 33, who lives in a huddle of makeshift huts and tents next to the town’s soccer stadium.

Ms. Diaz, an out-of-work maid who lives with her sister, brother, father, two daughters and niece in a one-room shack, said it was initially a shock to live as a squatter. “Little by little you get used to it, but it’s still hard.”

But if life is difficult in Pisco, the story is different in Banda Aceh, the Indonesian town devastated by the 2004 tsunami, a place where destruction was nearly apocalyptic. Entire blocks of the town simply disappeared, boats were tossed far inland. It took months just to find all the corpses. In all, about 230,000 people died in a swath from Indonesia to Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. More than half of the dead were in Aceh province.

The first weeks, certainly, were chaos as aid workers from around the globe, many ill-prepared for the scale of the destruction, struggled to help.

Within a few months, though, things had become far more organized. One year after the tsunami, carefully planned reconstruction projects were well under way. Today, five years since the disaster, it can be difficult to see that something terrible happened here. The town is crisscrossed by well-paved roads, new earthquake-resistant houses and modern schools and clinics.

In all, donors gave more than $13 billion to help in the tsunami’s aftermath. Nearly half of that went to Aceh.

So what is the difference: Why is Banda Aceh already rebuilt while Pisco is still digging itself out? Why does one disaster invite years of focus and billions of dollars in aid while another disappears almost immediately from the world’s consciousness?

Not surprisingly, the answers to those questions range as widely as the geography of the world’s disaster.

Pisco’s troubles were layered one atop the other: infrastructure that was already decrepit, endless red tape, badly organized aid efforts and, overwhelming everything else, widespread corruption and bureaucratic infighting. The scope of those problems made it difficult for international aid agencies to work with local governments.

In Aceh, conversely, there was a largely well-run reconstruction authority that worked closely with an army of donors. In addition, the nightmarish scale of the tsunami — with images pouring into the world’s homes just after Christmas — meant unprecedented financial assistance.

In many ways, though, Pisco and Aceh represent the extremes of the disaster-response spectrum. More often, the world’s attention remains focused — or fades — in ways that are far less clear.

In Bangladesh, for instance, a seemingly endless series of natural calamities means it is difficult to get attention when the country is hit by yet another cyclone or flood. In Myanmar, where a 2008 cyclone killed nearly 140,000 people, the secretive military regime denied foreign aid agencies access in the weeks that followed the disaster, only relenting following global condemnation. Even then the world couldn’t pay attention too closely, since Myanmar kept most foreign journalists out of the country.

Or take Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, which was hit by an earthquake in the fall of 2005, leaving nearly 80,000 people dead.

While the government’s initial response was painfully slow — and while thousands of residents still do not have permanent homes — many survivors say they do not feel forgotten by their government or the world.

“We are not thankless. We are satisfied with what we got,” said Mohammed Imtiaz, who owns a small roadside restaurant in the city of Muzaffarabad, which was devastated by the quake.

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