Seven days after the devastating eruption of Nevado del Ruiz on Nov. 13, rescue workers in Armero were still finding living victims in the 15 ft. of ooze that covered the town. The searchers knew that they had nearly run out of luck. "If there are any more out there alive it would be a miracle," said Volunteer José de Jesus Lerna after several of the rescued had died. "Death is now unchallenged in Armero."
As the gripping drama of the rescue effort gradually gave way to exhaustion and a sense of futility, stunned Colombians turned their attention to assessing the damage and rebuilding their lives. The official count of the dead and missing topped 25,000, making the Nevado del Ruiz blowout one of the deadliest eruptions in recorded history. At least 8,000 people were left homeless by the volcano. Thousands of acres of prime agricultural land were destroyed. The threat of disease had to be curbed, along with a wave of looting and banditry. And there was the political fallout, with many charging that the government of President Belisario Betancur Cuartas had reacted too slowly when the crisis struck.
Armero had become a ghostly wasteland of gray mud pockmarked with the jutting remains of houses, automobiles, trees and sometimes dead bodies. The government planned to have the Roman Catholic Church declare the area a "holy ground," meaning that more than 20,000 corpses would probably remain forever entombed under the hardening mass of volcanic ash, sand and clay. Health Minister Rafael de Zubiria expressed concern over potential outbreaks of disease, though he emphasized that there was no sign of epidemics.
Health workers administered about 80,000 doses of tetanus and typhoid vaccines. By the end of last week soldiers had set fire to piles of bodies and shot stray dogs and pigs to prevent the spread of disease. They arrested looters and bandits, but their actions often came too late. By the time the military arrived at the scene on Nov. 17, said one official, "just about all of the houses unaffected by the avalanche had been sacked."
More than 8,000 residents of Armero and surrounding towns are believed to have survived the disaster. Last week 4,500 of them were scattered in 23 hospitals and clinics in four provinces. Thousands more have trekked off across the countryside in search of lost relatives, aided by lists and photographs of survivors broadcast or published by the government. Already, most of the hundreds of children left parentless by the disaster have been claimed by relatives. Altogether, some 8,000 children under 16 died in the mudslides.
The relief effort was bolstered by an outpouring of $50 million in aid and assistance from foreign governments and organizations. The U.S. has spent $2.5 million for such items as blankets, tents, generators and disaster relief teams. The Colombian government allocated $5 million to repair washed-out roads and bridges that had been in the path of the mudslides. An additional $2.5 million was earmarked to fix fractured oil pipelines. On Wednesday, President Betancur announced that the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank had awarded Colombia loans of $1.2 billion for reconstruction.