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Russia quake victims set up home in their garages

Since an earthquake shook this Russian town on Sakhalin Island in the Pacific Ocean, Ivan Popov has been living in a garage.

The crude shack feels much safer than the town's Soviet-built apartment blocks, many of which crumpled in the quake. "I don't ever want to live in an apartment again," the former sailor said.

Nevelsk suffered the worst from an earthquake which hit the Russian Pacific island just over a month ago.

Closer to Japan's northern island of Hokkaido than it is to mainland Russia, Nevelsk, near Sakhalin's southern tip, is more than 6,000 km (3,700 miles) east of Moscow.

The Aug. 2 quake had a magnitude of 6.4 on the Richter scale, powerful enough to cause destruction wherever it struck. The death toll was relatively low. A total of four people were killed -- two on the day and another two who died later in hospital.

But the true scale of the damage only emerged in the days afterwards, as people in this fishing and mining town discovered that, even if their apartment blocks were still standing, they were no longer safe to live in.

Initially, officials said 2,000 people were made homeless. Now, that figure has gone up to at least 8,000, or about 30 percent of Nevelsk's population.

Residents are living with relatives and friends, in their weekend cottages outside town, in childrens' homes, garages and even railway compartments.

Russia is growing rich from its energy resources and few places have more than Sakhalin. The island has received billions of dollars in investment as Russian firms and foreign majors including Exxon and BP develop its oil reserves.

But the earthquake has shown that for all the wealth, Sakhalin still suffers from two legacies of the Soviet past: shoddily-built housing and a creaking bureacracy that was slow to handle the aftermath.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sacked Sakhalin governor Ivan Malakhov soon after the quake, accusing local officials of failing to provide shelter for the homeless in Nevelsk.

UNSAFE BUILDINGS

Sakhalin is in an area prone to seismic activity, but Nevelsk did not seem to be prepared for the earthquake.

Most buildings suffered some damage. Around 250 have been listed for demolition because they are unsafe. Some collapsed completely.

In the centre of the town, a Chinese-built building stands out because it was unscathed, while the Soviet-built blocks around it crumbled.

Popov is hoping eventually to move out of his garage, but he says he will not be entrusting his life to municipal housing.

"I have decided to build a small house," he said. "We're all thinking in terms of converting our dachas (summer cottages) into year-round homes."

In the meantime, Nevelsk residents are making do. Lyubov Kirilenko, a retired teacher, is living in a children's home in a suburb of Sakhalin's capital Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, two hours from Nevelsk.

"My husband and son are fishermen and they can't afford to live away from here (Nevelsk) and so they make do with a garage," she said.

Many residents say the relief operation was ineffective and do not believe officials' promises that new housing will be ready for them to move into by January.

Nevelsk mayor Vladimir Pak said he was doing what he could. "The reconstruction is being carried out by the regional administration and Moscow and we are just accommodating the process," he said.

Anatoly Kournikov is sheltering homeless relatives and friends in his small apartment.

"It's tough enough ... but our water supply has still not been restored," he said. "We were given a grand compensation of 1,000 roubles ($39)!"

© Reuters

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