Shelters ease shock of Pakistan quake

News and Press Release
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By Joe Lapp

When 18-year-old Ata Mohammad awoke in the dark, he didn't know what was happening. The ground was shaking, and the mud house with its timber-beamed roof rattled around him. "I was very frightened," says Ata.

When the quaking ended, Ata and his siblings discovered their father, who had been sleeping on the veranda, was buried beneath the rubble of the collapsed porch roof. They called for help. In the dark, neighbors dug through the pile of cracked timber and mud, but it was too late.

Ata's father was one of over a hundred killed by the October 29, 2008, earthquake in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan province. In the hard-hit Ziarat district, a popular mountain rest area, collapsed houses and rockslides from adjacent peaks killed and injured people and livestock and left 7,000 to 10,000 residents homeless.

The next day, village elder Abdul Samad helped bury Ata's father. "Ata was just standing there in severe shock and not crying at all," says Samad. "The tradition of sitting with the family for three days of condolences did not happen, because everyone was busy burying people in the surrounding villages as well."

A lack of shelter that next cold night compounded the grief and shock for Ata and many others as late-October temperatures dipped below freezing.

"For two nights we did not have any shelter, and we were sleeping outside without aid or support," says Ata. Continued aftershocks made people terrified to re-enter their damaged homes to salvage items such as blankets, pots and clothes.

Finally, aid did come. Government agencies, aid organizations and concerned citizens sent truckloads of food, blankets, warm clothes and tents to the affected areas.

For Ata, however, his troubles were not over. "I do not have an elder brother," he says, "so now that my father has died I am the only breadwinner. I am afraid about what will happen next and how my family will survive."

Shelter Before Winter

Ata hopes to earn money as a daily wage laborer in local apple orchards, one of the area's main sources of income, when life returns to normal. But first he has to worry about finding a warm house for himself, his stepmother and his five siblings; he knows the snows will start by early December.

But Ata's luck is turning. In his village of Kili Payo Khan, Catholic Relief Services is helping residents build warm, weatherproof shelters before winter hits. To determine who should receive the first shelter, "we consulted the elders of the village," says CRS staffer Gul Wali Khan, "and they chose Ata's household because his family is the most vulnerable."

Rebuilding permanent homes must wait until spring, since it is already too cold to form the traditional mud walls. So, using experience gained from the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan's northern areas, CRS staff is helping residents reuse material from their ruined homes. The men of the village are donating their labor.

A new transitional shelter for Ata and his family is framed with salvaged wood. CRS will supply materials to finish the structure and technical assistance to ensure the building is weatherproof and earthquake resistant.

When Ata's house is done, CRS and the community will work together to build more shelters, moving families out of the tent clusters that have sprung up on the edges of the village.

"The tents are not winterized and cannot bear the snow load," says Khan. "By giving shelter, we can help villages transition through this difficult time and get people ready for the coming winter."

CRS is committed to finding creative, local solutions to meet immediate shelter and other village needs. The agency hopes to reach 400 families in multiple villages with warm homes.

Joe Lapp is a photojournalist working with CRS Pakistan. He recently visited education programs in the country.