LIMA, Peru (JTA) – A small storage area off the courtyard of Leon Pinelo School is piled high with boxes and bags, as staff and volunteers sort through stacks of canned milk and bottled water, huge sacks of rice and beans, diapers and other essentials.
On the second day after a magnitude 8.0 earthquake shook the southern coast of this Andean country, killing at least 500 people, injuring more than 1,500 and leaving tens of thousands homeless, students began arriving at the school carrying food, water, clothing, sleeping bags and other relief items for the victims.
The collection is part of a two-pronged response to the disaster, according to John Gleiser, president of the Jewish Association of Peru. The first step is delivery of emergency aid, while the second will focus on helping with long-term reconstruction.
“We are united with a single purpose,” said Elizabeth Vexelman, a spokeswoman for the committee organizing the effort. Although the disaster “did not affect us personally, it did affect us as Peruvians.”
The quake, which struck at 6:40 p.m. on Aug. 15, shook buildings in Lima, where most of Peru’s Jewish community lives, but did little damage in the capital of 8 million people.
About 125 miles south, however, near the epicenter, it virtually destroyed the town of Pisco and leveled many buildings in the towns of Ica and Chincha.
Most of the houses that collapsed were older dwellings made of plaster-covered adobe bricks. The prolonged tremor caused walls to buckle and roofs to collapse. In the fishing village of San Andrés, high waves caused by the earthquake flooded houses and battered fishing boats, leaving them scattered on the streets.
The disaster brought an immediate response from Jewish leaders and entrepreneurs not just in Peru, but also in Uruguay, Argentina and other countries. Because getting donated goods through Peruvian customs often results in delays, a bank account was set up for donations from abroad. The funds will go to a longer-range post-quake project, such as helping to rebuild a school or health center, Vexelman said.
Several American Jewish organizations are also raising money for the relief effort. And the Israeli government donated half-a-ton of medicines and medical supplies as part of the relief effort. Embassy officials announced that the Israeli government would provide food and housing assistance as well, and was evaluating the possibility of sending water purification equipment. Peru is a popular destination for young tourists from Israel, but a spokeswoman for the Israeli Embassy in Lima said no Israeli citizens were known to have been killed or injured in the disaster.
The disaster sparked an immediate outpouring of solidarity in Lima as businesses, churches and district governments set up drop-off points for donations.
Members of the student volunteer program at Leon Pinelo School immediately began asking members of Lima’s three Jewish synagogues to donate relief supplies. By Aug. 19, between three and four tons of supplies had arrived, and organizers were expecting four or five more tons, when they will load trucks to ship the items south, Gleiser said.
Nearly all of Peru’s 3,000 Jews live in Lima. About half belong to the Union Israelita del Peru, while the rest are divided between the Sociedad de Beneficiencia Israelita Sefaradi and the Sociedad Israelita de 1870.
Organizers of the relief effort have used cash donations to purchase several thousand blankets, more than 200 picks and shovels, and huge cooking pots for the communal soup kitchens being set up in parks and shelters in Pisco, Ica and Chincha.
They decided to channel the assistance through Caritas, the Catholic Church’s humanitarian aid organization, which has local representatives in the affected cities.
“We are going to be very careful,” Gleiser said, to get the aid “to the people who really need it.”