6 months after Mexico quake some still camp outside homes

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Under a patchwork shelter of overlapping tarps and repurposed vinyl advertisements, several dozen residents of 18 Independence Street pack cheek by jowl into donated tents in the street near their building, which was damaged in the Sept. 19 earthquake.

Six months after the temblor, improvised camps like this one erected by displaced residents are among the most visible signs that not everyone has moved on from the earthquake that killed 228 people in Mexico City and 141 more elsewhere.

Mexico City Reconstruction Commissioner Edgar Oswaldo Tungui Rodriguez said there are 27 such camps around the capital, but denied that people were living in any of them. Rather, he said, quake victims had just posted guards to watch over their property.

Camps visited by Associated Press journalists offered a different reality.

Maria Patricia Rodriguez Gonzalez has been living under tarps on the sidewalk near the Independence Street building with her 13-year-old son and 27-year old daughter for the past six months.

The residents are still allowed to enter the building, but nobody risks staying there.

The bedroom floor in Rodriguez’s apartment has sunk since the earthquake. The ceiling sags and plaster has fallen from the walls. Afraid to use the bathroom there, she heats water on a gas burner under the tarps and manages a sort of bath inside a portable toilet on the sidewalk.

At first, Rodriguez and other residents say, there was a lot of solidarity in the neighborhood. Some neighbors let them use their bathrooms and shared food after the magnitude 7.1 quake. But as the days turned to weeks and then to months, sentiments shifted.

People have stolen the gas tanks they use to heat food. Cars have come close to driving through the camp. Some neighbors have stopped speaking to them, others hurl insults.

“It makes us sad that people insult us without knowing the reality we are living,” Rodriguez said. “We’re not here because we want to be. We’re here out of necessity.”

Displaced residents received 3,000 pesos ($160) each month for the first three months from the government. The idea was that they would rent apartments elsewhere. But residents say that was not enough to rent apartments in their neighborhood and they fear that without their presence, looters will clear out their possessions. Many residents had lived in the building’s 37 units for more than 30 years.

Rodriguez tries to make ends meet by selling candy on a table at the entrance to her camp. She had sold candy out of her ground floor apartment before the earthquake. Others go off to jobs during the day while a few of the building’s older women look after the others’ young children.

Most everyone has a cough and especially the children are often battling colds, said resident Emma Alvarez Lopez, who helps look after children. Her own granddaughter eventually had to leave the camp after contracting pneumonia.

“If we go, we’ll practically be abandoning the building,” Alvarez said. “We have to somehow pressure the government to support us.”

For now, they await an official determination from the city about their building. Most believe it will need to be torn down.

Their story was repeated by hundreds of quake victims who marched through the city’s center on Monday, demanding the government pay for repairs of reconstruction of their quake-damaged apartments.

In a sense, those whose buildings collapsed totally during the quake were luckier; there is no dispute about total demolition, and the government has offered self-financing in some cases to rebuild more apartments on existing lots, with developers selling off the extra units to pay for the reconstruction.

It is tougher victims like Miguel Angel Rodriguez, 57, whose apartment building in the Roma neighborhood suffered huge cracks in the quake. He has lived with relatives because it’s too dangerous to go back into his apartment, “but it is so uncomfortable to go back home and live like an uninvited guest.”

Building inspectors said the apartment block could be repaired, “but it was like a ten-minute, best-guess inspection. Who knows if it can really be repaired,” said Rodriguez.

It is that uncertainty that has made life unbearable; many have spent months on a bureaucratic treadmill, as officials ask for more and more paperwork, while the buildings sit empty and cracked, often with residents’ possessions still locked inside.

Like Rodriguez, Elizabeth Gutierrez, 56, also wonders who will pay for such expensive repairs, which haven’t started yet, six months after the quake. “It’s frustrating, it makes you mad,” said Gutierrez, who originally camped out outside her damaged building, and later went to live with relatives.

Tungui, the reconstruction commissioner, said in written responses to questions that city officials so far have determined what to do with 757 structures out of 911 on a list of damaged buildings compiled by an emergency committee. Some will be demolished, others repaired or reinforced. So far the city has demolished 28 buildings and is currently working on 15 others, he said.

The city announced last week that it had taken ownership of a lot where an office building collapsed, killing 49 people. It plans to convert it into a memorial to victims of the earthquake.

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