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Fear and grief follow the deadly earthquake on Ecuador’s southwest coast

QUITO, Ecuador — Some affectionately call Machala the “Banana Capital of the World”. This port community on Ecuador’s Pacific coast is home to around a quarter of a million people and is normally bustling with commercial activity. But not this weekend, not after the deadly earthquake.

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

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

“The city is calm, fear and mourning are felt,” said resident Luis Becerra. “You feel the pain, the drama, wherever you go. Everyone is on the lookout, with great fear in the event of a major aftershock.

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

The earthquake damaged and destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings in very different communities, both in coastal areas and in the highlands. But in Ecuador, regardless of geography, many houses that collapsed had much in common: many were old, did not meet modern building standards for an earthquake-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 an underprivileged neighborhood of Machala. On Sunday, a few neighbors stopped by a tent where the women’s coffins were laid out with flower arrangements and a crucifix. Some relatives said rescuers found the bodies of women and children as if they had been huddled together at the time of the disaster.

The quake was centered just off the Pacific coast, about 80 kilometers south of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second largest city. Of the country’s 14 victims, 12 died in the southwestern coastal state of El Oro, which includes Machala, and two in the highland state of Azuay.

Ecuador is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. In 2016, an earthquake centered further north on the Pacific coast killed more than 600 people.

Hamilton Cedillo, a Machala resident, said on Sunday he and his family barely slept in the hours that followed, fearing deadly aftershocks. They made an evacuation plan and watched videos on how to protect themselves in the event of another earthquake.

“I’m scared to leave and my family to be left home alone,” Cedillo said.

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

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

The Ecuadorian government issued an emergency statement covering roads in Azuay, where earthquake debris cut several roads and worsened already poor conditions attributed to torrential winter rains. One of the victims was a passenger in a vehicle crushed by the rubble of a house in the community of Cuenca.

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 the hardest-hit homes were generally poorly built, lacking solid foundations and deficient in structure and engineering design. He added that the most vulnerable houses 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 members of his family when the earthquake destroyed his niece’s house. The government has offered to pay for the funeral of the woman as well as those of her baby and companion.

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

“Because of its age, this building should have been demolished by now,” Vera said of where her loved ones died. ___

Garcia Cano reported from Caracas, Venezuela.

ABC News

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