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A week after quake, thousands still homeless in Mexico

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A week after an earthquake that killed more than 300 people, thousands of Mexicans were still unable to return Tuesday to their badly damaged homes, much less their normal lives.

After a week of eerie quiet in Mexico City, the capital's notorious traffic jams were visible again as the sprawling city of 20 million people began returning to work and school.

But many residents still had nowhere to go after losing everything in last Tuesday's 7.1-magnitude quake.

"You think it will never happen to you. I've lost track of what day it is. All we've managed to do is find some donated clothing, because we were left with nothing but the clothes on our backs," said journalist Gerardo Alvarez, a 31-year-old Venezuelan.

He and his wife have been staying with friends since the quake, which left their apartment building on the verge of collapse.

They are hunting for a new apartment, but prices in undamaged buildings have soared in the past week, he told AFP.

Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera has announced that those made homeless by the quake will receive temporary rent support of some $170 a month.

Architects and engineers have meanwhile been crisscrossing the disaster zone evaluating some 9,000 damaged buildings to decide which can be repaired and which must be demolished.

Thirty-nine buildings collapsed in the quake. Another 700 need repairs, and 300 have major damage.

- September 19 -
The city center was a bizarre mix of shops and restaurants going about business as usual, alongside collapsed and damaged buildings cordoned off by barriers and yellow tape.

Outside some afflicted buildings, people gathered waiting for authorities to tell them when they could go back in to get the things they left behind last Tuesday at 1:14 pm.

In a nasty twist of fate, the 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck on the anniversary of a 1985 quake that killed more than 10,000 people, the worst in the country's history.

Improbably, it hit just two hours after an annual earthquake drill, turning Mexico City's most seismically unstable neighborhoods into post-apocalyptic scenes.

In the trendy Roma neighborhood, shell-shocked and sobbing residents rushed into the street, disoriented and desperate for news of their loved ones -- impossible to get in the early minutes, with cell phone networks saturated.

Slowly, a picture of the destruction began to emerge: 39 buildings crumpled to the ground across the capital, trapping hundreds of people inside. Scores more were killed in the states of Morelos, Puebla, Mexico, Guerrero and Oaxaca.

Just as in 1985, thousands of volunteer rescuers sprang into action, scrambling onto the mountains of mangled steel and concrete to dig through the rubble with their bare hands in a desperate search for survivors.

Rescue teams from across Mexico and around the world soon joined them.

Across the city, 69 people were pulled alive from the wreckage in the first days.

But since late Friday, only bodies have been recovered.

Now, the delicate question facing the nation is how long to keep up the search.

- 'Our patience is over' -
Rescue workers have now wrapped up their efforts at all but a few sites in Mexico City, and the chances of pulling more survivors from the rubble are dim.

Emergency teams from Japan, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama have headed home.

The government faced protests Monday night by seething relatives of those still inside the biggest search site, a seven-story office building in the hard-hit Roma neighborhood.

Family members threatened to burst through security barriers and take to the rubble themselves if the authorities did not release more information on the operations inside.

"We acted for seven days and seven nights peacefully, waiting for results. Our patience is over... Please update the lists" of bodies recovered, said one relative, Ines Sandoval.

The latest death toll stands at 333 people -- 194 of them in Mexico City.

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