Rescuers are in a race against time to find survivors from a powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake as the death toll from Ecuador’s strongest earthquake in decades has risen above 400.
On Monday, teams from Ecuador and neighboring countries fanned out across the country’s Pacific coastline to look for the dozens of people still missing.
In the port city of Manta, a group of about 50 rescuers working with sniffer dogs, hydraulic jacks and a drill managed to free eight people trapped for more than 32 hours in the rubble of a shopping center that was flattened by Saturday night’s quake.
The first rescue took place before dawn, when a woman was pulled head first from a nearly 2½-foot (70-centimeter) hole cut through concrete and steel. Firefighters applauded as she emerged from the debris, disoriented, caked in dust and complaining of pain but otherwise in good health.
Another uplifting scene played out in nearby Portoviejo, where a cellphone call to a relative from under the debris of a collapsed hotel led searchers to Pablo Cordova, the hotel’s administrator. Once he was gingerly removed, he was immobilized and hauled away on a stretcher, his hands waving in the air in a sign of appreciation to cheering onlookers.
“Since Saturday, when this country started shaking, I’ve slept only two hours and haven’t stopped working,” said Juan Carranza, one of the firefighters leading the rescue effort in Portoviejo.
Despite such cheering moments, tragedy continued to mount. At the shopping center in Manta, authorities were working to free a woman they had found buried alive with a heavy concrete slab pinning her legs when an aftershock forced them to abandon the effort. When they returned the debris pile had moved and the woman was dead, said Angel Moreira, a firefighter coordinating the effort.
The government reported late Tuesday that the official death count had increased to 413 and said they expected the toll to rise further in the days ahead. Among the dead were an American and two Canadians.
Complicating rescue efforts is the lack of electricity in many areas, meaning noisy power generators must be used, making it harder to hear anyone who might be trapped beneath rubble.
Christian Rivera, the head of emergency services for the capital, Quito, said that depending on the circumstances a person without serious injuries can survive up to a week in such conditions.
“After that, there’s a quick decline … and the rescuers’ work becomes very difficult,” he said.
Some 450 rescue workers from Spain, Peru, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and elsewhere are working in the areas with the most damage. The U.S. has also offered assistance but so far President Rafael Correa, a strong critic of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, has yet to respond publicly.
The leftist leader on Monday boarded a military helicopter to deliver water, food and other supplies to devastated areas.
He urged Ecuadoreans to remain united in what is likely to be a long rebuilding process that could cost billions of dollars. “The priority is to direct resources where there are signs of life,” Correa said.
After a deadly earthquake in Chile in 2010, that South American country was able to get back on its feet quickly thanks to a commodities boom that was energizing its economy. But Ecuador must rebuild amid a deep recession that has forced austerity on the OPEC nation’s finances. To assist in the recovery effort, Ecuador plans to draw down on some $600 million in credit lines from the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and other multilateral lenders.
Manta, a thriving port city, is among the areas hit hardest by the earthquake. Power cables lie in city streets and electricity remains out in many neighborhoods. Among the many building flattened by the shaking was a control tower at the airport that was home to U.S. anti-narcotics missions in South America until Correa kicked the Americans out.
As humanitarian aid begun trickling in, long lines formed as people sought to buy bottled water. Many residents are sleeping outdoors in makeshift camps or in the street cuddled next to neighbors.
Spain’s Red Cross said as many as 5,000 people might need temporary housing because of destroyed homes and 100,000 need some sort of aid.