September 20, 2014

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Army sent in to aid Peruvian quake victims

PISCO, Peru — The government sent the army Saturday to stop looting fueled by rising desperation in earthquake-shattered Peru, where tens of thousands were without fresh water and shivering families huddled in makeshift shelters at the center of the devastation.

In a soccer stadium in the port city of Pisco, more than 500 people rushed a lone truck that ran out little packets of crackers, candy and toilet paper, screaming that they had not eaten and accusing rescue workers of keeping supplies for themselves.

As many as 80 percent of the people in quake-hit urban areas may not have access to clean water and many rural communities still have not been reached to assess the damage, said Dominic Nutt, part of an emergency assessment team in Peru for the aid agency Save the Children.

"The situation is probably worse than first imagined,” Nutt said.

President Alan Garcia sent 1,000 troops to stop the looting. “We’re going to establish order, regardless of what it costs,” he said.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Allan Wagner told The Associated Press in Pisco that the death toll from Wednesday’s magnitude-8 quake had risen to 540, up from the previous figure of 510 provided by firefighters.

Destruction from the quake, which also injured at least 1,500 people, was centered in the cities of Ica and Pisco in Peru’s southern desert, about 125 miles southeast of the capital, Lima.

Garcia said at least 80,000 people were affected in some way, mostly through the destruction or damage of homes.

At one end of a soccer field in Pisco, families who had lost everything huddled in a half dozen makeshift shelters made of cardboard and blankets held up by wooden poles.

"We don’t have water. The tents have not arrived,” said Maria Tataja, 38, who shared an open-fronted shelter with nine other people. She shivered in the ocean breeze.

Some people complained of price-gouging and said the cost of basic foods had doubled or tripled at the local market. Others arrived in Pisco’s central square asking for canned milk and other goods but often left empty-handed.

Soldiers stood guard at supply depots and tried to ensure that aid trucks made it to their destinations.

Miguel Soto, a police officer standing guard in the Pisco stadium, said food donated by one Lima district had been raided on the traffic-clogged highway to Pisco. Many other food trucks simply weren’t getting through, he said.

Responding to criticism that aid was not arriving quickly enough, Jorge del Castillo, Garcia’s Cabinet chief, told El Comerico newspaper said that all planes available were now being used to ferry supplies to the victims. Immediately after the quake, many of the aircraft were used to carry the injured to Lima, he said.

Motorcycle taxi driver Marco Coila said he had moved his family out of Pisco to a village where they had hoped to find more food.

"There is nothing to eat. There is a lot of looting going on,” he said.

Rescuers continued to pull bodies from the rubble of the San Clemente church in downtown Pisco, where hundreds had gathered for Mass when the quake struck Wednesday.

Local media reported Saturday that a 10-month-old boy had been pulled alive from the ruins of the church hours after the earthquake — one of the more heartwarming stories to emerge in the aftermath of the disaster.

"It was a miracle that he had survived so many hours breathing only dust and death,” Romulo Palomino told the state news agency Andina.

Palomino said he had been searching frantically through the adobe and wood rubble of the church for his parents when he discovered the infant in a pile of broken timbers. The baby’s parents have not been located and Palomino and his wife are taking care of him for now, Andina reported.

Hopes of finding more survivors diminished on Saturday.

Paul Wooster, coordinator of the Rapid UK Rescue team from Gloucester, England, said rescuers were using sound detectors and infrared cameras to search mountains of rubble. The latest survivor discovered, a man, was pulled from the rubble at midday Friday.

"We always work on a four-day window and I’m talking realistically. So we are still looking for survivors but there’s not much more time,” Wooster said.

The U.S. dispatched medical teams, two mobile clinics and two helicopters, along with $150,000 to buy emergency supplies. S. Ward Casscells, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, arrived in Pisco on Saturday to assess the needs of the people and how the U.S. can help.