Brick by Brick

October 16, 2013
By Colleen Walsh, Harvard Gazette

First there was only gentle sleep, but suddenly and horrifyingly it was shattered by tremors, and confusion, and destruction, and floods, and flight, all leading toward tragedy.

An 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck Chile on a February night in 2010, toppling buildings and driving thousands into the streets. The quake, the sixth largest recorded by a seismograph, triggered a tsunami that ripped houses from their foundations and hurled fishing boats into downtowns. Nature’s powerful one-two punch killed hundreds and changed the lives of millions of Chileans.

Helping people to move forward is the guiding ethos of Recupera Chile, an initiative based at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS). The program helps to connect researchers and students from Harvard institutions — including the Kennedy School (HKS), the Graduate School of Design (GSD), the Graduate School of Education (HGSE), the Medical School (HMS), and the School of Public Health (HSPH) — with Chilean academicians, government officials, community leaders, and local residents to work toward long-term, community-based recovery.

Doug Ahlers, who teaches courses on disaster recovery and community development at HKS, directs Recupera Chile, which is modeled after the School’s Broadmoor Project, an initiative begun in 2006 to help the New Orleans Broadmoor neighborhood recover from Hurricane Katrina. Harvard students have long been a critical part of the New Orleans effort.

The same is now true for the Recupera area. Last year, 20 of Ahlers’ students traveled to the country’s southern coast, helping inhabitants of the severely damaged communities of Perales, Dichato, and Cobquecura.

“So much recovery is beyond the public sector,” said Ahlers, an adjunct lecturer at HKS. Government agencies are effective in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, he said, providing leadership and rebuilding critical infrastructure. But helping families and communities piece their social and economic fabric back together takes much more.

Helping communities to help themselves

Central to that slow, multiyear process is helping communities to develop themselves. Ahlers and the leaders of Recupera Chile are quick to stress that they aren’t direct service providers. Instead, they help residents to solve their own problems.

“It’s a whole-community approach,” said Ahlers. “It’s about rebuilding lives.”

Thousands of lives were shattered in Cobquecura, a small town about 260 miles from Santiago. With its long stretches of pristine shoreline and rugged surf, the scenic town is both a hot spot for summer beach lovers and wave riders. Though the tsunami spared Cobquecura, the massive earthquake that shook the ground for close to three minutes destroyed nearly 80 percent of its structures.

These days, the town is rebounding. In its commercial center, there are few piles of bricks and stone that were once shops or houses among the rows of new construction. The staccato whack of hammers fills the air as residents build and rebuild amid lively new markets made up of small stalls that offer shoppers everything from kitchen cabinets to bulbs of fresh garlic.

Residents hope that the village, a national heritage site because of its profusion of traditional adobe construction, will again become a symbol of Chilean pride. read more

This is the seventh in a series of stories about Harvard’s engagement in Latin America.

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Professor Doug Ahlers and students in Perales, Dichato, and Cobquecura

in 2012, 20 of Adjunct Lecturer Doug Ahlers’ students traveled to the country’s southern coast, helping inhabitants of the severely damaged communities of Perales, Dichato, and Cobquecura.

Photo Credit: Doug Ahlers

Doug Ahlers, who teaches courses on disaster recovery and community development at HKS, directs Recupera Chile, which is modeled after the School’s Broadmoor Project, an initiative begun in 2006 to help the New Orleans Broadmoor neighborhood recover from Hurricane Katrina.