Gracias to the humanitarian workers and volunteers who responded to Peru´s 1970 earthquake

Martin Coria | August 18, 2020

“On May 31st, 1970, on a lazy foggy Sunday afternoon, I was at home reading when the earth began to shake. I ran into the street. Outside you could see the shock waves rolling under the asphalt (….) Soon, the shaking stopped, but life would never again be the same.” – Ricardo Frohmader, CWS Peru director 1969-1971.

This year on World Humanitarian Day, I find myself thinking about the CWS staff and volunteers in Peru who fifty years ago responded in solidarity and with passion, compassion and the highest professional standards to the devastating May 31 1970 earthquake.

In February 2019, former CWS Peru staff and agricultural engineer Ruben Paitán Mera and former country director Ricardo Frohmader contacted CWS via email as they began to plan a 50th anniversary reunion in Peru:

“Those of us who worked in Peru then are septuagenarians at least. I am 75 and served as CWS country director when I was 26, 27, 28. Other colleagues are closer to their eighties or more now, and some have already been called by the Lord,” Ricardo wrote. “Collectively we have identified 54 people or couples who were part of the CWS disaster response in the wake of the 1970 earthquake. Several are very interested in a reunion next year, probably in June someplace in Peru. We still have a lot of people to contact. Quite a few have died. These people were part of a team that took care of 70,000 Peruvians in parts of Casma, Aija and Recuay provinces in Ancash. It was a large effort, and worthy of remembering.” 

Maybe it’s because I myself have been with CWS for almost 20 years now.
Or maybe it’s that I recently turned fifty.
Or maybe it’s because 2020 marks the 10th anniversary of CWS Haiti’s 2010 earthquake response.
Or maybe it’s because I live in an earthquake-prone part of Argentina, where I have felt three tremors just in the time that it has taken to write this article.
Or maybe it’s simply because I know how important it is to be thankful.

No matter the reason, the result was the same: the Peru earthquake 50th anniversary celebration became a significant project for me. My wife Laura and I were ready to join the CWS Peru 1970 earthquake team in June.

Sadly, COVID-19 changed everybody´s plans.

What happened in 1970?

The earthquake on that awful day in May 1970 killed some 80,000 people and injured more than 300,000. It is still considered the largest natural disaster in Peru’s modern history.

In addition to the human losses, the damage to infrastructure and rural livelihoods was massive and took years to recover. Housing, roads, schools, clinics, irrigation systems–all destroyed. CWS responded and rebuilt some. (The road Project from San Miguel de Malvas to Malvas and Huyán deserves an article in and by itself.)

The quake in Peru was actually the first of three devastating earthquakes that shocked Latin America in the early-mid 1970s. There were also massive earthquakes in Nicaragua in 1972 and Guatemala in 1976. In all three cases, American churches and CWS responded in solidarity and collaboratively.

Jerry Aaker on his way to a village high in the Andes following the earthquake.

About the Response Team

In some ways, international response to massive disasters has not changed that much since 1970. In a matter of weeks, the CWS Peru team went from six staff focused on community development before the earthquake to almost one hundred Peruvians, Americans and even some Europeans after it. Some of the foreigners had recently arrived recently in Peru like Jerry (81) and Judy Aaker. “Our family had been in Lima barely a month. We had never before felt the strange sensation of the ground shaking under our feet like that,” Jerry remembers. Others arrived months later.

They were a group of young, skilled and inter-disciplinary Peruvian, American and European humanitarians who found themselves in a unique position to help others. They did it, and that changed their lives forever. There were Lutherans, Mennonites, Methodists, Brethren, Presbyterians.

Many of them, like agricultural engineer Ruben Paitán, had literally just graduated from university. In fact, Ruben’s mom attended his university graduation ceremony in his place because he took his job with CWS and immediately left for the disaster zone. Today, Rubén remembers and pays tribute to the memory of his young colleague, agricultural technician Rafael Cueva, who died in a car accident in Aija shortly after taking his CWS job. Also among the recent graduates were Mik (75) and Elena Braestrup, who had just finished a PhD in Civil Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark and a BA in languages (Spanish, German and English), respectively.

Some of the foreigners went to Peru with just crash courses in Spanish or Quechua. Others had valuable professional experience in complex emergencies. Jerry and Judy Aakers had spent two years serving with Lutheran World Relief in the midst of the terribly destructive war in Vietnam. Don Kurtz was an MCC veteran who served in Africa before going to Peru. Don passed away last week at 78. In words of Ricardo Frohmader: “When Don and I connected in 2019 he took on the task of locating as many of us as could be found… Don’s life was a life full of service to others.”

Peruvian and foreign women humanitarians like Nora Passini, Elsa Santillan, Mary Ann (Packer) Moddee, Neli de Zavala, Nelly (Meriko) Tamashiro Frohmader, Beryl Knotts and Elena Braestrup served in different capacities in CWS Peru. From warehouse management to logistics, office administration and serving in programs on family agriculture, animal breeding, health, sanitation and nutrition education, they were a key part of the response. Here are a few of their memories:

  • “The first morning in San Miguel villagers from the higher lying towns came with their donkeys to collect calaminas and food donations. Most of the donkeys were in poor condition, skinny and full of wounds. I cleaned the wounds and bandaged some. Then children came with their ailments. The ‘local’ doctor Guido lived in Aija and came only once a year (accompanied by the dentist who spent the day pulling molars), so my little house medicine chest became popular. Malnutrition, poor hygiene (only few had latrines), lack of safe drinking water and ignorance were major problems. People were very poor, so any advice had to be cheap. We boiled the water, but the locals could not waste wood, or kerosene. Soap was a luxury.” – Elena Braestrup
  • “After New Year I observed the group preparing sleeping bags, tents and many things to travel. ‘Where are you going?’ To Aija, where there has been an earthquake. We work there. ‘Oh may I travel with you?’ They made a very small place on the back of the Land Rover beside all the things they were carrying to the camp. There I helped where I could: the secretary went on holiday, then the cook was away for some time. After a few months CWS started a new project in Raypa with Barney Meyer (Architect), Ruben Paitan Mera (Agronomist), Marcelino (Technician in Agriculture), and me. I started a breeding project for guinea pigs to improve the local animals. I finally discovered my vocation–animal breeding.” – Nora Passini
  • “While in Succha, I developed no formal programs. I was only a nurse with a few medical supplies, hoping to help people to live life more comfortably and healthy in a modern world. I learned and gained so much more than I could ever give. I hope in some small way I met some goals of the program. I understood the goals to be: to provide the basics for a people who had lost so much in one of nature’s worst mishaps. The people in this area were strong, and regrouped immediately after the earthquake. The needed little, and received us as esteemed guests, providing us with the best comforts they had available. I hope I lived up to their trust, and gave some-little-something in return.” Mary Ann (Packer) Moddee

Ricardo Frohmader (27, center, dark shirt), to his right facing the camera: David Reed (CWS, 23), left: Phil Townsend (22, Church of the Brethren volunteer), next to him (back to the camera) Luís (Lucho) Saldaña, to his right, Mik Braestrup (25).

A Fast Response and Lasting Connections

Pooling churches’ resources and personnel was common and done quickly back then. In times without formal global humanitarian platforms like today’s ACT Alliance, “a few phone calls to headquarters” and a signed agreement were enough to lend a mission worker or volunteer to a disaster response operation. The World Council of Churches served as a helpful platform to connect American and European churches as well.

Like in today’s successful disaster response operations, good leaders made a difference in Peru 1970 earthquake response. In words of Pedro Veliz: “Let me pay special tribute to Ricardo Frohmader for his management capacity and for the way they dealt with so much human misery and suffering. Ricardo offered me my first job out of school. His confidence and simplicity were principles that modeled my professional career. Ricardo never lectured me, I always felt its confidence and accompaniment in my assigned duties.”

Barney Myer, Ruben Paitán, Hilda Mota and Barney´s daughter in a 2007 visit to Peru.

The memory of CWS Architect Barney Myer is still alive in Peruvian colleagues and amigos like engineer Ruben Paitán, who worked with Barney in Aija and Raypa. “I believe it is the only town where a relationship with a CWS volunteer was established and has endured to this day, with Barney’s son carrying on the relationship after his father’s untimely death.” Ricardo wrote. Barney Myer oversaw the construction of the first earthquake-resistant school in Peru, later named after him as a sign of community gratitude.

Multi-tasking was as much a part of “the CWS experience” in the 70s like it is today. CWS deputy director David Reed remembers: “When I arrived on June 6th I was appointed ‘sub-director,’ which means I reported to Ricardo. For the days and months to come my job was doing what the country director couldn’t do. I was then asked to oversee all infrastructure reconstruction projects; conduct the socio-economic study needed to the housing project in Huarmey; and so on…”

After the Recovery

What happened to them after CWS? Many went back to school to complete a degree. Several made a career in international development, others in teaching and a few in business. Some never connected back to CWS until today. Some, like Ruben and Pedro, continued working with CWS in Peru for several years and then moved to local development and relief agencies as they were localized or created. Mik Braestrup had to be evacuated to Denmark after a very serious car accident in September 1972; his full recovery took years.

Pedro Veliz, who after serving with CWS became a widely respected member of Peru’s development sector and ecumenical movement, says today: “Church World Service was the school where I saw and experienced in each of my colleagues what ‘faith in action’ means. The passion for serve your neighbor, the respect for people in need’s dignity, the importance of valuing people´s gifts, knowledge and culture.”

“May the Lord continue blessing CWS in its mission with the poor, the refugees and the disenfranchised around the world,” said Ricardo Frohmader’s first email to CWS in February 2019.

On behalf of the Church World Service and the CROP Hunger Walk (also present in 1970 earthquake response!), I want to express sincere gratitude to the humanitarians who responded in Peru 50 years ago and to those who survive them. Gracias!

Martin Coria is the CWS Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean.