Disaster Strikes!

I am affected by a profound sense of unreality this morning. Here in Cuenca the sun is shining, and the birds are singing, the mists are hovering over the mountains. But if I got on a bus and rode for three hours down the mountains to Guayaquil: disorder and suffering.

Last night I was sitting at my computer, just after it got dark, in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass wall which shows me a view of the glittering city of Cuenca and a slice of the Cajas mountains. I felt a jolt, then a slight shaking. “Earthquake!” I called to Steve. I looked outside and the landscape was tilting and jumping. I heard tiny cracking noises coming from the ceiling.

“Where?” He asked. The shaking intensified, and then he realized, “Oh! Here!” We both stepped out onto the terrace which surrounds our penthouse apartment, figuring if the building collapsed, we’d rather be on top of the rubble than underneath. All our neighbors were out on their balconies as well, conversing in Spanish.

The shaking went on and on. Small earthquakes are routine throughout Ecuador, similar to California. They are usually over before you can react.  This one kept going and going, for more than a minute. A friend on social media said he felt like an abused child being shaken. When it finally ended, I was a little queasy (and I don’t get motion sickness). My heart was pounding.

The bizarre part was that the news on the radio and TV had nothing about the quake. Ecuador has a law which prohibits news reporting after a disaster unless the government approves the news broadcast. This is supposedly to prevent false rumors from spreading, but of course it is political. The first news outlets carried information about the disaster about 90 minutes later. However, social media and citizen journalism came through! People were tweeting photos of their surroundings within minutes. I also learned of a Facebook feature where, if you identify yourself as living in an area affected by a natural disaster, FB sends you a message asking you to check in as “Safe”, and once you have checked in, it lets all your friends in the disaster area know you’re okay. Nice, Facebook!

The Facts

The quake was rated a 7.4, then upgraded to 7.8, making it the biggest quake to hit Ecuador proper since the 8.2-magnitude Tumaco earthquake of 1979, offshore at the border with Colombia, whose worst damage was caused by a tsunami affecting the Colombian coast. Prior to that, an 8.8 had hit Ecuador in 1906. This current quake was bigger than the well-remembered Loma Prieta quake which wreaked havoc in San Francisco in 1989. A tsunami warning was issued from Colombia to Peru, (which was later revoked as no tsunami developed).richter_scale_graphic_representation

News Trickling In

Sadly and frighteningly, many of our friends on the coast did not check in as safe. People were posting on all the Ecuadorian expat groups, asking for news of the whereabouts of friends and family. Manabí province, Puerto Viejo, and Pedernales, on the northern coastline. Someone got word about a popular innkeeper who’d managed to send a single text message: her home was demolished, her dogs were missing, she and her husband were both banged up and bleeding. He needed medical attention for his injuries but there was none to be found. No power, no lights, no landline, no roads, intermittent weak cellular signal. The next day she managed to make a call and it was reported on social media that they were working on purifying swimming pool water and signaling passing helicopters unsuccessfully for help, and also that a vacationing nurse had given the husband antibiotics.

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Pedernales moments after the quake

Lives and Property

Ecuador is one of the countries that has leapt from poverty to middle income in recent decades, thanks to globalization. It is very much still a region in transition; urban centers boast luxury apartment buildings and cloverleaf freeways, but they are cheek by jowl with people living in dirt-floor shacks without indoor plumbing. Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most populous city and its major seaport, has both extremes and everything in between. No one was spared. Freeway bridges came down, crushing cars, and some people’s homes simply shook to tiny fragments within moments of the tremors.

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Car crushed under overpass in Guayaquil

El Morino Shopping Mall

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Grocery store in Quito

People in the southern coastal beachfront resort communities, farthest from the quake, reported swimming pools sloshing all their water out; the beaches reportedly emptied in minutes as people spoke the word “tsunami” to one another. The bridges in Guayaquil have been closed until they can be inspected, which makes getting across that sprawling metropolis of 3 million people very difficult.

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The town of Manta, halfway up the coast, seemed to be where the worst damage began. Their little airport had a control tower, a flimsy thing built of corrugated metal and lightweight steel beams. It came down immediately. Hotels, condo high-rises, and office buildings crumbled and fell. This quake would have caused catastrophic damage in California, where the building codes are strict, with earthquakes in mind. Ecuador has had building codes which provide for earthquake resistance for many years, but enforcement has been spotty and subject to bribery and corruption; the government has changed multiple times and no one is held liable for the omissions of building inspectors in this administration, much less earlier ones.

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Manta before the quake
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Manta after the quake
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The control tower at the Manta airport

Cut off Completely

The towns north of Manta are mostly tiny. Recently, more expats have been moving up the coast to these little fishing villages like Crucita, Portoviejo, Bahia de Caraquez, and Pedernales to live the fantasy of life on a secluded tropical beach. These little towns have one  road in and out, and many of them have no source of fresh water; the residents have cisterns which are filled by water trucks which make regular deliveries. This earthquake split and destroyed several of these roads, to the point that they will have to be completely rebuilt to make them passable. At the same time, heavy el Niño rains have already made the mountainsides into mud, so several roads between Quito and the coast have been temporarily closed by landslides.

Road portoviejo
Road into Portoviejo

Pedernales, near the epicenter, is completely cut off and completely demolished. Yet, a local woman charged her phone from her car and sent out photos of an impromptu soup kitchen she has set up in the street, with food from the few local vendors who are still open.

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Spontaneous charity for the victims in Pedernales

Basics of Life

Food, water, and medicine cannot make it in, and refugees cannot make it out.  Most of these small towns have no hospital. The Ecuadorian medical licensing board requires all MDs to do a rotation in a small-town free public clinic prior to getting their licenses. These clinics are, I have been told, without basic equipment and supplies most of the time. The green general physicians are certainly neither trained nor equipped to deal with a huge influx of severe injuries. The Manta airport is open this morning, and the Ecuadorian Red Cross has brought in over 200 health care professionals and two portable hospitals, one in Pedernales and one in Portoviejo, but the number of official dead now stands at 233, with thousands injured. They have brought 3,000 emergency rations, 7,600 sets of bedding, 150 sets of family crockery, and most urgently, 10,000 bottles of water. These are just a stop-gap measure. The need for humanitarian aid will be ongoing and urgent for months to come.

The Law

Portoviejo had a jail holding 200 criminals; the walls came down and they are now roaming freely amongst the already-terrified populace. Ecuador’s government has sent 10,000 infantry, 3,500 police, 86 helicopters, and a squad of dogs trained to sniff out people trapped in rubble.

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How to Help

As of this moment, Cruz Roja is accepting donations into its Banco Pichincha account, but these donations can only be made from within Ecuador:

Banco Pichincha

Checking Account/Cuenta corriente: 3462520104

Name on Account: Nombre de la cuenta: Fondo de emergencia

Beneficiary: Beneficiario: Cruz Roja Ecuatoriana – Quito

Registration Number/RUC: 1791241746001

 

The need for relief will not end any time soon. Presently there are numerous groups collecting food, water, and clothing donations, but the logistics of getting them to the victims are still unclear.  Ceiba Foundation is a local charity in Ecuador which has started a fund earmarked for earthquake victims and accepts credit card donations.  Oxfam UK at this moment has an appeal where you can donate by credit card in pounds sterling. Doubtless the American Red Cross and crowdfunding groups will be soliciting donations that are easier for US residents to make. Check the International Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent societies for a formal appeal. Give generously; the need is great.

And some free advice: enjoy the moment you are living right now. People have asked me if I’m ready to “come home yet.” Florida, where I lived for decades, is under annual threat of hurricanes. The midwestern US has its tornadoes, the north and northeast have blizzards, the west coast has its own earthquake threats. Nowhere is completely safe. And no one knows when his or her last day will be. Live in the now. Peace.

 

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