Fear, grief follow deadly quake on Ecuador’s southwest coast

March 20, 2023 GMT
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Rescue workers stand next to a car crushed by debris after an earthquake in Cuenca, Ecuador, Saturday, March 18, 2023.. The U.S. Geological Survey reported an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7 about 50 miles south of Guayaquil. (AP Photo/Xavier Caivinagua)
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Rescue workers stand next to a car crushed by debris after an earthquake in Cuenca, Ecuador, Saturday, March 18, 2023.. The U.S. Geological Survey reported an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7 about 50 miles south of Guayaquil. (AP Photo/Xavier Caivinagua)

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Some affectionally call Machala the “Banana Capital of the World.” This port community on Ecuador’s Pacific coast is home to about a quarter million people and normally bustles with commercial activity. But not this weekend, not after the deadly quake.

Grief hung in the air on Sunday, a day after a powerful temblor rocked this city, toppling homes and buildings along the coast and as far off as the Ecuadorian highlands and even parts of Peru.

Rubble covered some streets of Machala. Neighbors held simple funerals to bury the dead. A pier was no more. And a day after the quake that killed nine residents alone along this hard-hit coast, many in Machala were feeling anguished and uneasy.

“The city is quiet, fear and mourning are felt,” resident Luis Becerra said. “You feel the pain, the drama, wherever you go. Everyone is alert, with great fear in case” a major aftershock.

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The quake, which the U.S. Geological Survey reported at magnitude 6.8, killed at least 15 people and injured more than 445 others. Fourteen died in Ecuador, and one in Peru.

The quake damaged and brought down hundreds of homes and buildings in vastly different communities, both in coastal areas and the highlands. But in Ecuador, regardless of geography, many of the homes that crumbled had much in common: many were old, did not meet modern building standards of a quake-prone country and many of their inhabitants were poor.

Yajaira Albarracín, Graciela Chila, Silvina Zambrano Chila and two children died under the rubble of their home in a low-income neighborhood of Machala. On Sunday, a few neighbors stopped by a tent where the caskets of the women where set out with floral arrangements and a crucifix. Some relatives said rescuers found the bodies of the women and children as if they had been clutching one another when disaster struck.

The earthquake was centered just off the Pacific Coast, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second-largest city. Of the country’s 14 victims, 12 died in the southwest coastal state of El Oro, which includes Machala, and two in the highlands state of Azuay.

Ecuador is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. In 2016, a quake centered farther north on the Pacific Coast killed more than 600 people.

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Machala resident Hamilton Cedillo said Sunday that he and his family barely slept in the hours afterward, fearful of deadly aftershocks. They have come up with an evacuation plan and watched videos on how to protect themselves should another quake strike.

“I am afraid of leaving and that my family will be left here alone at home,” Cedillo said.

Pope Francis offered prayers for the victims during his weekly Sunday noon blessing.

“I’m close to the Ecuadorian people and assure them of my prayers for the dead and suffering,” Francis said.

Ecuador’s government issued an emergency declaration covering the roads in Azuay, where the quake debris cut off several roads and worsened already poor conditions attributed to the winter’s rainstorms. One of the victims was a passenger in a vehicle crushed by rubble from a house in the community of Cuenca.

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In El Oro, according to the Risk Management Secretariat, Ecuador’s emergency response agency, several people were trapped under rubble or in damaged buildings.

Quito-based architect Germán Narváez said houses hit hardest tend to be poorly built, lacking solid foundations, and deficient in structure and technical design. He added that the houses most vulnerable are often old and built with materials such as adobe, once frequently used in the region.

“At critical moments of seismic movements, they tend to collapse,” he said.

Juan Vera lost three relatives when the earthquake brought down his niece’s home. The government has offered to pay for the woman’s funeral and those of her baby and her partner.

Now, Vera wonders why local authorities ever allowed his relatives to live there to begin with, saying the municipality should better regulate building conditions and ensure only those that are really safe are rented out or occupied.

“Because of its age, that building should have been demolished already,” Vera said of the place where his relatives died. ___

Garcia Cano reported from Caracas, Venezuela.