The Recovery Program
This chapter will describe the postdisaster recovery effort up through the point at which the field observations were made in February 1986, three months after the lahars destroyed the town of Armero. Although damage occurred elsewhere as well, the study team’s observations were focused on the destroyed community of Armero and on nearby communities that suffered losses or were the site of official refugee camps—Honda, Mariquita, Lérida, Guayabal, and Camboa. (There also were camps in Ibague, the capital city of Tolima.)
The following description of recovery activities is based on discussions with various Red Cross, Civil Defense, reconstruction agency, and U.S. Embassy personnel. The study team also spoke briefly with refugees in the community of Armero and obtained some journalistic and relief agency accounts of the recovery operations and progress. This chapter will describe the general organization of the recovery efforts, the development of a “new Armero,” and other special recovery issues.
ORGANIZATION OF THE RECOVERY ACTIVITIES
In the first weeks, the relief activities were directed, for the most part, by the Red Cross and then by the Colombian Civil Defense. About two weeks after the November 13 disaster, a presidential task force was created to design and direct the recovery program. The recovery effort was conceived as a joint effort between the public and private sectors. A well-known and well-regarded private sector entrepreneur was selected to head this task force. With some of his associates the head of the task force formulated an organization known as Resurgir, translated in English as “to rise again.” Resurgir was to provide an organizational solution to the need for better
management of the receipt and distribution of national and international recovery assistance (financial, materials and supplies, equipment, labor, etc.).
Resurgir functioned as a coordinating body for all the private sector and governmental agencies who were to participate in the recovery, construction, and mitigation activities related to the volcano. The organization was operated out of the director’s corporate headquarters in Bogotá. It was staffed with persons from a number of different organizations who were paid by their own parent organizations.
Resurgir was to become the coordinating organization for all activities related to the Ruiz disaster. It was also responsible for organizing continued emergency preparedness in communities at risk from future eruptions. With respect to the losses caused by the November 13 eruption, Resurgir’s responsibilities included providing housing, food, employment, reconstruction, and urban development and verifying the identities of survivors.
Meetings of the participating agencies, including representatives from the international assistance groups, Colombian agencies, and the private sector, were to be held in Bogotá and in the disaster region. Separate committees were formed to deal with each of the major recovery and preparedness activities. These committees were structured to include representatives from a mix of relevant agencies and two or three survivors to represent the victims’ viewpoints.
By mid-February 1986, the provision of assistance to those designated as survivors was in the early stages of implementation. The League of Red Cross Societies, an international organization, was still managing the refugee camps and food distribution, while Resurgir was responsible for survivors not in camps. Resurgir was involved in the process of identifying persons eligible for disaster assistance and was in charge of the distribution of provisional housing. It had also begun to distribute the cash stipends to eligible victims. Resurgir set up information centers in Bogotá and other communities in the disaster region where victims could inquire about types of available disaster assistance and their eligibility for such assistance. Apparently, permanent housing was to be provided only to those who returned to the area near Armero.
PROVISION OF TEMPORARY HOUSING
Following are some observations about the provision of temporary housing for the Nevado del Ruiz victims staying in the area.
There were few physical remnants of the city on which to focus rehabilitation activities. The continuing risk of mudflows negated consideration of
rebuilding on the former site. All former inhabitants were thus forced to take up residence elsewhere. Refugee camps (referred to in Colombia as “albergues”) were established in the region around Armero for survivors of the disaster. However, refugee camps are not typically viewed by survivors as the preferred housing alternative. Many of the survivors had found temporary housing with relatives or friends in other communities, or had rented or bought housing as their resources permitted.
The Refugee Camps
As of February 1986, a common estimate of the number of Armero survivors was 5,000. It was estimated that between 1,000 and 2,000 people lived in refugee camps throughout the region, including in the state capital of Ibague. The camp administrators noted that there was some fluctuation in the overall numbers as well as in the specific residents as families entered and left the refugee camp system. Also, more distant camps were being phased out and families transferred into the camps nearest Armero.
The camps in the Armero area included those in Lérida, Guayabal, Camboa, and Venadillo. One group of about 120 refugees was housed in a school; an estimated 630 others lived in the tent camps in these towns. Unfortunately, there was a need to dismantle the camp in the school, as it was past the date that instruction was to have started. A newspaper account of the camps near Ibague indicated at least 600 persons residing there, although they were to be moved to the Lérida area in the near future (El Tiempo, 1986). There also were refugees living in Red Cross-administered temporary quarters in Honda, although these were mostly Honda residents dislocated by damage.
Refugee Camp Organization
The camps around Lérida were supported by the International League of Red Cross Societies. The League had agreed to administer the refugee camps for three months—that is, until the second week in February—at which time the government of Colombia was to assume their support. However, a meeting of relief and recovery agencies working on the Ruiz disaster was held and the League apparently agreed to continue its administration until the recovery agency, Resurgir, was fully organized and capable of taking over.
The camps were largely staffed by volunteers. These included Red Cross volunteers and others who had volunteered specifically for the service (e.g., school teachers). These volunteers came from all over the country. Although those interviewed indicated it had been a gratifying experience to work at
the camps, they had not anticipated that their services would be needed for such a long period of time and they reported a need to return to their regular activities. It can be assumed that many other volunteers already had returned to their homes.
Each of the camps visited was organized in a somewhat different manner. In the tent camps there were an average of 3-4 persons per tent, with large families housed in more than one tent. Refugees housed in the school building lived in a dormitory-like setting, with several families sharing each classroom as their sleeping quarters. The camps had started out with communal arrangements for cooking and doing laundry. However, conflict had been generated by such arrangements in some of the camps. Families had preferred to build simple cooking facilities by their tents in order to cook when and how they wanted.
Food was donated by other organizations or purchased locally by the Red Cross. In the camps where families had independent cooking facilities, the food was distributed directly to each family based on the number of persons. Toilet and bathing facilities were communal. In general, these facilities in the tent camps appeared very new, indicating that the provision of these services had been delayed well past the opening of the camps.
The camps in the Lérida area had programs designed to provide work or occupational training for the refugees. Resources from the relief operations were used to provide machinery and materials for such tasks as sewing, baking, carpentry, and fabrication of shoes, fishnets, and bricks. These programs were described as attempting to either provide work for refugees similar to what they had done prior to the disaster, or to provide them occupational training that would be useful to them when they reestablished a permanent residence. The camp workshops also produced products to be used in the camps. For example, refugees participated in the construction of the temporary housing.
Social Conditions in the Camps
According to accounts of the recovery workers, camps differed with respect to social and psychological conditions. The camps visited by the team appeared orderly and the camp program was described as involving the residents in camp maintenance and improvement. However, there were also reports of camps in which social conditions were less satisfactory. One camp reported high crime rates in and around the camp. This was believed to be related to a criminal element that had moved in or developed there. Indicators of this included an increase in burglaries and robberies in the surrounding community by people living in the camps and intimidation of camp inhabitants and volunteers by a small element seeking to control camp life. Another report speculated that some camps were being infiltrated by
antigovernment elements who were engaging in activities designed to incite camp inhabitants against the government.
Volunteers remarked that morale was slipping in the camps in the Lérida area. Initially, camp residents had been quiet and accepting of the situation. Even though living conditions were somewhat uncomfortable and inconvenient, the most typical sentiment was “it is a roof.” However, refugees were beginning to exhibit frustrations with not having a real roof nor much control over their life style.
By February, the newspapers were reporting that the level of complaints was escalating, noting that some camp residents were voicing increasingly stronger complaints about the quality and quantity of the food being provided them, the uncertainty of when and what kind of food would be distributed each week, and the perceived slowness with which the recovery agency was moving toward permanent solutions to the problems of the Armero survivors (El Tiempo, 1986). The newspapers also carried accounts of demonstrations held both in Bogotá and in the disaster region by disaster refugees to voice dissatisfaction with the speed of the recovery program.
Similar expressions of dissatisfaction and impatience have been observed in other postdisaster recovery situations. In this instance, the extent to which such feelings were held by a majority of the refugees is unknown. It is also reasonable to consider the possibility that such demonstrations were at least partially politically inspired, designed to embarrass the political party in power. In Colombia, the presidential election was only weeks away.
The camps surveyed each had a simple clinic that health workers visited regularly. A health worker in one of these camps noted that there were many health problems among the residents. Some were related to the slow healing of burns, lacerations, and other injuries received the night of the mudflow. The majority of the conditions treated, however, were extensions of the generally poor health conditions and health care that characterized the predisaster living conditions of the camp residents.
No specific data were collected on mental health problems in the camps. However, it can be assumed that many of the refugees have or will experience at least moderate psychological consequences, including such symptoms as depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances. The horrifying nature of the disaster, due to the high death toll, the likelihood that survivors witnessed others dying, and the uncertainty on the part of many as to the actual whereabouts of their kin, represents the type of disaster scenario found to contribute to lingering psychological consequences for survivors (Quarantelli, 1979).
Six hundred units of “provisional” housing were projected for the Lérida area. By February 1986, some units had been built in Guayabal and at the edge of Lérida for the households dislocated by the mudflows. It was intended that the first to be moved to these houses would be camp dwellers with the largest families. Apparently the land for this housing had been purchased as part of the recovery program, and a national agency—the Instituto de Crédito Territorial—was financing the construction.
There were 120 housing units nearing completion at Lérida. The project was known as Ciudadela de Jardín. At least 100 more units had been started in Guayabal, a few of which already housed refugees by mid-February. These houses were of simple construction to facilitate quick assembly, with two bedrooms and a combined kitchen and living room. Common bathing and laundry facilities were provided in separate buildings centrally located among the units. The houses were designed so that private bath facilities could be added later.
Many factors must be taken into account when reconstruction decisions are made. In the Armero case, reconstruction entails relocation of survivors and local functions away from the old Armero townsite. As in postdisaster situations elsewhere, the selection and acquisition of a site on which to relocate survivors involve many political, economic, legal, and social factors (Haas et al., 1977).
By February 1986, Resurgir was publicizing plans for the construction of permanent housing for the Armero survivors. These plans designated the development of a “New Armero Regional Center.” It was evident that there had been considerable deliberation and some controversy about the specific location. Apparently, there still remained many uncertainties and likely changes in plans or available resources before a “new Armero” could, if ever, be built as a planned development.
Reconstruction planning often involves the progressive use of distinct housing stages such as emergency shelter, temporary housing, and finally permanent housing. Tent camps are considered as emergency housing. In Colombia, as elsewhere in the Third World, tents and other quickly constructed one-room shelters would likely fulfill the needs of the homeless for many months after the disaster.
Designations like “provisional” or “temporary” were also being used with respect to the prefab and cinder block housing being constructed near Lérida. However, it appeared that the tents would still be in use after the newly constructed provisional homes were occupied, since there were far fewer
houses being constructed than there were families dwelling in the tent camps in the area or living in other temporary facilities (e.g., sharing housing with relatives). Experience in the Third World with postdisaster provisional housing of the type built at Lérida suggests that this housing is likely to be upgraded and become permanent, whether or not other “permanent” housing is built.
Another typical controversy arising after many urban disasters involves the conflict between the urgent need to rebuild quickly and the need to carefully redevelop the city so that it can avoid similar disasters in the future. In the Armero instance, little thought was given to redeveloping the original townsite. The risk of that site was obvious. However, there is evidence that the site destroyed in 1985 had been built in the same location as a community that was destroyed by a similar event in 1845. Even after the recent event, some structures remain in the higher parts of the town site and of a neighboring community and on farmland downstream. It will undoubtedly require close attention on the part of the government to prevent some type of redevelopment in the hazard zone in decades to come.
As of February 1986, Lérida (approximately 13 km from the Armero site) had been selected in the area master plan as the site for redevelopment of housing and other social and economic functions formerly located at Armero. A colorful master plan diagram had been prepared to show the layout of the development. This plan indicated areas of new housing (for Armero survivors) laid out at the edge of an area of existing housing. It also showed areas designated for community services, with the commercial district stretched along the highway, and undeveloped areas left for parks and open space.
The relevance of such a sophisticated master plan to the short-term problems arising from the disaster remains to be seen. For example, Armero had represented a major regional agricultural service center, and as the area returns to normal the replacement of this function will become ever more critical. There also is some question as to who will inhabit the proposed new town. This is one of the special issues described below.
Many of the issues and concerns the study team heard voiced about the recovery and reconstruction plans were fairly typical. For instance, there were complaints that recovery activities were moving too slowly, that provisions for refugees were not adequate, that too much emphasis was being placed on housing and not enough on the social and psychological needs of the survivors, and that those in charge of the recovery process did not understand or care about the needs of the victims. Potential aid recipients and other critics charged that the concentration of Resurgir’s staff and activities in Bogotá—far from the affected area—contributed to a lack of understanding of the local problems created by the disaster.
Two questions of particular interest for the design of recovery programs in the affected area are (1) What categories of victims should be designated as eligible for recovery assistance? (2) How can the economic and social roles that had been filled by the hundreds of community leaders, professionals, and business people killed in the mudflow be successfully reestablished?
Designating Eligible Parties
As the recovery plan was formulated, it was necessary to specify who was eligible to receive the assistance to be provided, such as monthly stipends, educational benefits, and housing in the “new Armero.” As of February 1986, two of the stipulations for the Tolima province recovery plan were that those receiving assistance had to return to the region around Armero, and that only those who had “escaped from the mud” (essentially persons who were residents of Armero as of November 13, 1985) were eligible for assistance.
The study team noted that the “mudflow survivor” requirement was not only difficult to implement, but also was proving to be controversial at the time of the team’s observations. First, many who owned land or had other financial interests in Armero had not been residents of the community, but had sustained losses nonetheless. Second, controversy focused on the fact that many in the region felt that the effects of the mudflows had extended beyond Armero and the losses of individual families. The economy of the region had been affected in a number of ways, at least in the short term. Both municipal leaders and those representing commercial interests in other towns in the disaster area were hopeful that the national recovery program would ultimately provide assistance to help them overcome the losses they had sustained with the disruption of commercial activities in the area.
The verification of residency in Armero also was fraught with difficulties, especially since many local records were lost in the disaster. A program to identify and provide proof of Armero residency was under way, using tax and other types of records. Once an individual was established as a survivor from Armero, he or she received an identification card. This card had to be presented to receive the monthly stipend (approximately US $24) given to survivors and, eventually, to qualify for other recovery assistance, such as housing. As of early February 1986, over 15,000 people had presented themselves as survivors—a much larger figure than the official estimates suggested there should be.
Replacement of Economic and Social Roles
The demographics of the disaster damage in Armero (Lima, 1986) indicate that the lahars obliterated not only the physical center of the town, but the social core of the community as well. It is believed that few survived from among the wealthier, better educated, or better trained groups that
constituted the political and economic leadership in Armero—those managing its public institutions and major businesses. Those who lived at the edge of the community or closer to the hills, and thus closer to safety, were more likely to be of the lower income groups (a pattern opposite that of many U.S. communities). With much of the traditional leadership gone, the issue of who is available to initiate, organize, and manage the economic redevelopment that is to be fostered by creating a “new Armero” gains great practical and social significance.
It is likely that the population found in the refugee camps in Tolima suffered from low education levels, lack of economically viable skills, and poverty even prior to the disaster. This could be because, as mentioned above, a high proportion of survivors had lived in outlying areas populated by low-income groups. It has also been found that those with enough resources to reestablish themselves will not normally he found in the refugee camps. Previous disaster research indicates that economic and social marginality prior to a disaster affects the ability of individuals and families to reestablish themselves after a disaster. Those with personal resources or strong support networks of kin move away from dependence on assistance programs and reestablish themselves using these other resources (Trainer et al., 1977; Bolton, 1979).
It is not clear if those survivors already making a somewhat successful economic recovery elsewhere will return to the Armero area to take part in the “new Armero” at Lérida. In disaster-stricken communities in which the social structure remains intact, whatever the physical damage, it is fairly likely that the reconstructed community will resemble the former community both in terms of principal activities and economic leadership. The best way to promote the reestablishment of the previous functions fulfilled for the region by the town of Armero may remain a major issue for recovery planning for some time to come. The manner in which the current gap comes to be filled is a worthy focus for social scientists interested in community redevelopment.
The recovery efforts had not been long under way at the time these observations were made. Two types of events have considerable likelihood of affecting the shape and outcome of the initial redevelopment plans in the Ruiz area. One would be a change in government policy, precipitated, perhaps, by the election of a different administration. The other would be another volcanic event that had further major effects on the residents or economy of the region.