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Colombians Bury Last of Quake Dead

February 1, 1999

ARMENIA, Colombia (AP) _ Colombian morgue workers buried the last unclaimed bodies of earthquake victims Monday and authorities began the monumental task of rebuilding _ a week after an earthquake flattened most of this city and killed nearly 1,000 people across the region.

Workers pulled 29 corpses in black plastic body bags _ the only unidentified victims among the hundreds of dead _ from a refrigerated truck, transferred them to coffins, and buried them in a mass grave in Armenia’s only cemetery.

Earlier, medical workers took teeth and blood samples from the bodies for use in future DNA identifications.

Colombian rescuers ended their search for survivors, saying it was unlikely anyone else would be found alive, according to Ariel Ospina, the head of Red Cross operations here.

Authorities prepared for the long recovery ahead in Colombia’s coffee country, where the magnitude-6 quake on Jan. 25 was centered. Some official estimates say it could be 10-15 years before the region recovers.

``Today, we begin the task of material reconstruction and mental recuperation,″ said Gov. Henry Gomez of Quindio state, of which Armenia is the capital. ``We should generate jobs and get things back to normal to chase away the uncertainty about the future.″

Yet about 200,000 people are homeless in the region and depend on government handouts. Emergency food will last only a week more, and after that, people will have to fend for themselves, says the government’s Solidarity Network aid organization.

Four thousand people are injured, and the government needs to rebuild 35,000 houses either destroyed by the quake or rendered too dangerous to leave standing.

If past experience is any guide, the recovery will take a long time. In the southern state of Cauca, people who lost their homes in a June 1994 earthquake are still waiting for the government to fulfill promises to give them land to build on.

Asked how long she planned to live under a crude lean-to of plastic sheeting in front of her house, 45-year-old Gilma Geraldo burst into tears.

``I don’t even have the courage to think about that,″ she said. ``It will be months.″

On Monday, workers brought in heavy machinery to begin demolishing 18 buildings in danger of toppling. Another 65 were on the list for demolition, said Gustavo Canal, director of the government highway agency INVIAS.

First lady Nohra de Pastrana, who is heading the national relief effort, called on people and companies to send equipment and tools to smaller towns that don’t have resources to knock down damaged buildings and clear thousands of tons of debris.

The government has earmarked $300 million to begin rebuilding and is waiting for international credit authorizations for $100 million more.

Police and soldiers remained on alert after last week’s rioting and looting in Armenia, the hardest-hit city which is about 60 percent destroyed. While the violence has calmed, authorities said it could flare up again.

``There are still criminal gangs trying to take advantage of the tragedy,″ reconstruction coordinator Luis Carlos Villegas said.

Downtown blocks were cordoned off to prevent looting. Military police controlled pedestrian traffic, and long lines of shopkeepers and workers formed, eager to get a peek at their shops and stalls.

Jose Omar Castro, who said he had about $300 worth of candy and cigarettes at his market stall, said, ``I’m going to take away whatever I can.″

Some signs of normalcy sprang up.

A downtown insurance company was open for business for the first time since the earthquake hit. Manager Claudia Velez Botero said about a dozen earthquake-related claims had come in, mainly for destroyed houses and cars.

``It’s a regular business day,″ she said.

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