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A Salvadoran earthquake relief effort proves that DIY can help others, too.

Porvelina Sorto has never worked in construction. Yet Sorto—a cafeteria worker and mother of five—is spending a cold February Sunday afternoon at a makeshift construction site in the Cheverly Industrial Park, carrying wooden beams that will be hammered into the plywood walls of prefabricated houses designed by local residents.

The 50 houses being constructed today at a suburban Maryland lot owned by the Laborers International Union of North America are tangible aid for victims of two recent earthquakes in El Salvador that will be shipped to them via Guatemala. Sorto is one of 45 volunteers toiling away or (as happens at every true construction site) standing around and “supervising.”

“I think this is the best way to help,” Sorto says. “To make even a small house so that people can cover themselves from the rain.”

Sorto also wants to ensure that the products of her labor reach those most affected by the series of earthquakes that have devastated El Salvador over the past month, killing hundreds and leaving close to 1 million homeless.

“We had a bad experience with Hurricane Mitch,” explains Sorto, reminiscing about the destruction caused by the October 1998 natural disaster. “We worked day and night collecting and packing things here, and then the people there said they didn’t receive anything. We don’t want this to happen again.”

Sorto’s dismay at the lack of aid that reached Hurricane Mitch’s victims was shared by Oxfam International, which released an October 1999 report titled Status of the Central America Reconstruction Process One Year After Hurricane Mitch: Invisible Aid? The Oxfam report indicted both international aid donors and the governments of the region, noting that “[t]housands of Central Americans affected by the hurricane have not felt the effects of international aid which…in many cases has been redirected towards infrastructure projects of little impact on the most disadvantaged sectors.”

The determination by Sorto and the other volunteers that aid collected by local communities for the El Salvador quake victims actually get to the disaster zone was the spark that lit this unique local effort. The improvised construction site in Cheverly where the houses are being built was organized by the United Salvadoran Communities of the Washington Area (Comunidades Unidas Salvadoreñas, or CUS)—a group consisting of 17 longstanding civic organizations from the Washington, D.C., area that represent different regions of El Salvador.

Group members watching the images of destruction after the first earthquake, on Jan. 13, could barely recognize their former neighborhoods in the devastation. They exchanged ideas on how they could help over the phone. In one day, they settled on sending prefabricated houses to the country to provide shelter that would remain long after the disaster faded from the headlines.

Speed was essential to the effort. Local volunteers collected more than $150,000 pledged during a seven-hour local radiothon held the week after the first quake on three local Spanish-language stations owned by Silver Spring-based Mega Communications. Then the group negotiated an import-tax exemption with the government of El Salvador and secured donations of land in El Salvador upon which to build the first 25 houses.

Once the money was in, the group settled on houses manufactured by International Building Concepts, a Minnesota company with previous experience in Central America. The chosen house design is especially adapted to rural conditions in El Salvador. The relief committee negotiated the purchase of 75 houses and the donation of a further 25 houses.

Direct oversight is another key to the effort. CUS sent a delegation to El Salvador to coordinate the land transport of the homes from Guatemala to their final destinations in El Salvador and to speak with mayors in the towns of San Miguel, Usulután, and Ciudad Arce to persuade them to donate land for the houses. CUS will send another delegation to El Salvador to oversee the distribution of the aid and help the locals assemble the homes. The group has already received a detailed survey of the areas where the homes will be located, including the names of families and their exact losses.

“This effort takes a lot of work,” observes Francisco Castro, an organizer of the construction effort and owner of Castro Remodeling in Fairfax. “It is much easier to donate money, but we want to be 100 percent sure that the right people receive this aid. Many times, the distribution of disaster aid is used for political gain. We don’t trust anybody.”

Castro adds that his skepticism extends even to religious organizations working in El Salvador. “Sometimes,” he argues, “they favor their own congregations.”

The countless hours of volunteer work and the generous donations are not simply a response to the suffering of relatives whose lives were disrupted by the earthquake. Relief effort organizer Wilson Zavala explains that even though most volunteers have family members who were affected by the disaster, the homes are for those who have no one to turn to.

“These houses are only for people who don’t have relatives in the United States,” says Zavala, “or any family members who can help them, [and] for those in the most remote rural areas where international aid doesn’t arrive.”

As quickly as they put together their initial plan for the housing relief, the CUS committee members decided that it wasn’t fast enough. When the group found out that the prefabricated houses they had ordered from Minnesota would take at least 60 days to reach El Salvador, they also decided to design, build, and deliver their own structures that could be sent to the quake-stricken country within a week.

“We have seen the pain of those sleeping in the streets,” explains Zavala. “Many countries have sent food and medicine, but the people have to eat their beans and rice without a roof over them. It is almost the beginning of the rainy season. Sixty days is too long to wait.”

Zavala and Castro (who has worked in construction for three decades) designed the 16-foot-by-16-foot houses with the Salvadoran countryside in mind. They built a prototype on Zavala’s front lawn and placed a sign with it to reassure their Fairfax neighbors that the structure—which would house a family of seven in El Salvador—was only a temporary addition to the neighborhood.

“This house model is economical, practical, easy to build,” Castro enthuses. “It doesn’t waste any wood, and it lasts 30 years.”

By making the houses themselves, Castro says, the group has reduced the cost from more than $2,000 per home to less than $700. Each structure consists of 36 pieces of plywood that five people can assemble in about an hour.

Once the model was completed, the group organized the initial house-raising in Cheverly, where volunteers like Sorto built the 200 walls and 50 roofs.

The group had materials donated from several local businesses, and restaurants delivered tamales, pupusas, chicken, and drinks to the volunteers.

In an additional stroke of ingenuity, the houses are being shipped from Delaware in Pilsener-brand beer containers, which

usually return to Central America empty after the imported brew is unloaded in the United States.

“This is something that isn’t being done anywhere else,”concludes Castro. “We are giving an example. All we need are nails, plywood, wood beams, and volunteers with good hearts.” CP