Survivors of Valparaiso firestorm march on Congress to demand decent housing and dignity

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Survivors of Valparaiso firestorm march on Congress to demand decent housing and dignity

By Lezak Shallat, Fundación EPES CHILE

Torrential rains turned the steep streets and ravines of Valparaíso into rivers, and makeshift emergency housing into sieves. On June 11, two months after the firestorm that consumed 3,000 homes and damaged 12,000 more in the Chilean city of Valparaiso, its blackened hills were not ringing with the sounds of hammers; instead, the angry chants of protestors banging pots and pans echoed from hill to hill as the scores of people battled the rain to march down to the gates of the National Congress to demand to decent housing.

Marco Olmedo is clothed in a plastic bag to keep off the rain. His house on Cerro El Litre burned to the ground, and everything in it. Fortunately, he wasn’t there. Unemployed, he had left four days earlier for Argentina to look for work. He saw his neighborhood engulfed in flames on TV news and rushed back to salvage what he could.  He’s living in the makeshift, emergency housing known as “media-aguas” — a one-room, wooden shack with no bathroom. His electricity was only restored today.

Lorena Monroy, President of the Cerro El Litre Neighborhood Council, charges the government with negligence. “It’s impossible that we still are lacking a rapid, definitive and dignified solution.”

“No more emergency shacks in Chile,” demands Mauricio Salazar, director of the Las Cañas Community Center where EPES in focusing its recovery efforts. “They don’t work. That’s our reality.” Salazar denounced “disorganization and rumor” from the authorities in charge of the rebuilding efforts.

“We are here to tell them that we are not going to let them forget about us until we have decent, dignified housing,” he promises, backed by cheers from the crowd. A scuffle with police followed as the protestors momentarily blocked the entrance into Congress, located at the foot of the city’s impoverished hillsides.

Hear Marco, Lorena and Mauricio in their own words.

Health educator Mónica Arancibia, facilitator of the participatory assessment process supported by ACT member Fundación Educación Popular en Salud (EPES), accompanied the marchers and attested to their demands. “In structured conversations, residents are prioritizing their individual and collective needs: weatherproofing the shelters, clean-ups of the communal toilets and showers, a place to wash clothes, garbage pick-up,” she enumerates.

Mónica also cites the contribution of “commitment, support and identity” that EPES is providing. “Like them, I’m a also pobladora (resident of a low-income sector launched in a land takeover on the outskirts of the city). I know what it is like to struggle.”

The EPES-facilitated assessment is shedding light on a host of problems that won’t disappear once the rains stop. “The procedures for assigning and building the emergency housing is sorely lacking in controls,” says Maria Eugenia Calvin, EPES Director of Planning and coordinator of the ACT initiative in Valparaiso. “Boards are missing, nails are missing, the shacks come without locks for the door. The families who are fixing up their homes need skilled builders to oversee the dwindling number of volunteers who have stayed on to help the homeless. But instead of hiring local workmen, the government is bringing in military people to carry out the repairs.”

One Month After the Devastating Fires in Valparaiso

One Month After the Devastating Fires in Valparaiso: Community Organizations Play a Leading Role in Recovery

Note from AHA: Mauricio, director of the community center mentioned below, was a participant in EPES’ 3rd International Training Course on Popular Education and Health. You can read more about EPES’ response and recovery plans via the ACT Alliance.

By Isabel Diaz, EPES

One month after the giant fire ravaged the hills of Valparaiso, the residents who were left homeless continue their precarious existence, living on their former property in tents or shacks of corrugated tin and boards rescued from the fire.  The first emergency dwellings have already confirmed their absolute lack of waterproofing.  As the winter cold and rains set in, the now bare hillsides, lacking any vegetation to contain the soil, also face threat of landslides. In addition, the lack of running water, poor nutrition, and cold weather heighten the susceptibility to illness.

People who live in land occupations in the ravines are even more vulnerable. These communities live in constant fear of being evicted from the place or not receive the same benefits as those who have deeds to their properties.

In the aftermath of the fire that destroyed 2,900 houses, caused 15 fatalities and left 12,500 people homeless, thousands of volunteers and community organizations from throughout the country responded to the emergency. Volunteers were fundamental for clearing a great amount of debris from the houses destroyed by the fire. Volunteers organized solidarity drives to collect food, clothing, personal hygiene items and other basic, urgently needed supplies. Today, few of the 15,000 volunteers who worked in the initial weeks after the fire are to be seen.  Yet the families still need support to prepare the ground for installing the emergency dwellings. Trucks do not go up the hills, so the pre-fab wooden panels for the emergency housing units must be brought up in any way people can.

The community of people who lost their homes complains that government officials are absent on the damaged hillside neighborhoods and have not solved the most pressing problems. Moreover, there is no information regarding how to apply for the promised emergency assistance funds. This situation reveals an operational failure of the municipal and central government response to the disaster.

In light of this state of affairs, community organization will be fundamental in fighting for their urgent demands.

The EPES Foundation responded to the emergency by initiating work in coordination with the Las Cañas Community Center, which serves as an aid distribution site, community dining hall that serves 300 lunches each day, place for holding meetings and for organizing efforts.

Common to many neighbors is a sense of powerlessness because they say the fire and the deaths could have been prevented. The deadly fire of this past April 12 is not the first to ravage the area. In February 2013 fire destroyed 105 houses, affecting 1200 people. Last year experts issued reports warning that the district was at risk to a major fire. Government officials simply ignored these warnings.

This week Cerro Las Cañas neighbors held a candlelight ceremony to remember the people who died, reflect about what they have lived through and think about the future. They envision a participatory reconstruction process that restores dignity to their lives and community.

Update on Work in the Campamento in Penco, Chile

By Scott Duffus

I just returned from a week and a half in Chile where I spend time at the campamento in Penco.  It was a privilege to see EPES’ community building work in action!   If you are interested in more details about my time there take a look at my blog, (there are 9 posts starting on May 20th).   I remember Karen Anderson telling me that the coldest she has ever been was in Santiago in winter.    I believe her now.  It is cold in Concepción in May and the middle of winter does not come till July.

The temporary housing called Mediaguas, which were provided by the government are small and come with no windows or doors;  no provisions for heat, water, or insulation;  they have roofs that leak, and the siding is what I would loosely describe as board and batten but the wood must have been green when they were assembled because the siding boards warp so that there are gaps which let in the wind and water.  Here is a video of one of Sandra Mora, one of the community leaders in the Campamento and her observations about her new “home.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFdJ9c0nWv4&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0]

EPES did a community assessment to determine what needed most by the community and who needed it.  They determined that better roofing material was vital, as were insulation panels.  EPES purchased corrugated galvanized panels and nails with rubber washers for roofs. I installed a couple of those new roofs myself, but there were plenty of others who were doing that work in the campamento.  It really wasn’t about getting a guy from Minnesota to do some work in Chile– it is about EPES being able to provide the community with the right resources to solve their own problems.  The insulation which EPES is providing is another example of a well thought out plan.  When I got there there were plenty of piles of 1″ polystyrene foam around, and I was thinking “Hmmm– this might not be the best option unless it is covered” (polystyrene is flammable).  The insulation that EPES is providing is pre-attached to flame retardant panels.

Here is another video of Sandra a few weeks later when some of the weatherization has been done on her home:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwES7gKc_j8&hl=en_US&fs=1&rel=0]