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The disaster is still with us 22 years later

Last Sunday marked the 22nd anniversary of the October 12 earthquake that hit central Egypt, destroying thousands of homes and leaving thousands of families homeless.

Egypt wasn’t ready for such a disaster then, in which some 561 people lost their lives, a large portion of whom lived in Cairo’s historic quarters, or adobe homes in the surrounding villages. New, multistory, reinforced concrete buildings also succumbed to the quake.

Rescue efforts relied primarily on ordinary citizens, who tried in vain to pull people from the rubble, as civil defense teams were woefully unprepared. A number of those trapped, but still alive, died during rescue operations, as the noise of mechanical diggers breaking through concrete rubble drowned out their cries for help. The only alternative was digging by hand, something rescue operators saw as equally fatal, as it was time consuming and would mean trapped victims might die of starvation by the time they were pulled out.

Egypt was not prepared. Many of the dead were also victims of a lack of awareness regarding what to do during an earthquake. 41 children died during stampedes in three schools in the Shubra district of Cairo, while the schools themselves withstood the quake. Miracles also happened, one of which was the extraction of Aktham al-Sayed Ismail, who was alive after being buried for three and a half days under the rubble of his home — which, until 3.10 pm on October 12, 1992, was a fourteen-story apartment block. Though he lived to experience the loss of his mother, daughter and wife to the darkness beneath the rubble.

Over 10,000 families lost their homes. 5000 buildings collapsed, and a further 11,500 were damaged in thirty seconds. The villages of Manshiyet Fadil, Al-Atf, Al-Bedsa and Al-Beleida — 40 kilometers south of Cairo — were the hardest hit, as was the village of Tamiya in Fayoum and others in Beni Suef — though we know little about what happened there, as the spotlight was on the capital. 

As foreign aid poured in and rescue missions ceased, attention turned to those who had been made homeless. At first, temporary camps were organized, some of which utilized the shells of decommissioned public buses for shelter. It wasn’t until a year later that families were relocated to permanent housing in a number of Masakin al-Zilzal (Earthquake Housing) estates, the most famous of which was in the Moqattam district of Cairo, while the rest were in so-called New Cities, outside the capital, and not without their problems.

Twenty-two years on, and the question still remains: Have we learned the invaluable lesson that cost us almost 600 lives?

Apparently not. Every year, we experience losses equivalent to a third of those incurred in the ‘92 Earthquake disaster. 192 people were killed in 2012-13 in over 390 building collapses, while over 800 families were made homeless. Two decades on, and local citizens are still the first to attend to victims, and the last to leave. In some of the bigger collapses, local authorities requested military assistance, as their civil defense teams were overwhelmed.

Statistics show that a third of building collapses are the result of dilapidated buildings. Many have restoration orders dating back to 1992, while almost a quarter of a million buildings — housing anywhere from half a million to over a million families — have been issued restoration orders that have yet to be implemented.

It is mostly the poor that live in such buildings, in which the expense of restoration is just too high, or they pay little rent under the rent control system from the 1960s, leaving little incentive for owners to maintain them. 65,000 buildings — home to between 200 and 400 thousand families — have been condemned and their tenants issued eviction orders. But, residents often refuse eviction, despite imminent danger, due to a lack of alternatives. Being made homeless or living in government-issued tent camps doesn’t appear any better.

Over two decades since the disaster of the ‘92 Earthquake, hundreds of thousands of families are living in dangerous, inadequate housing. These families deserve to know why they have been forced to do so, and whether there is a plan to change things.

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Yahia Shawkat