Diplomatic Pouch / April 29, 2016
By Larry Luxner
The earthquake that struck Ecuador on April 16 — a magnitude-7.8 temblor that devastated towns along the country’s scenic Pacific coast — is the worst natural disaster to hit Ecuador since 1949, and the deadliest quake to rattle South America in 17 years.
At last count, the death toll stood at 654, with about 16,600 people injured and another 58 missing. In addition, 113 people were rescued from damaged buildings — which number in the thousands — and some 25,000 people are now living in shelters.
The U.S. Geological Survey located the quake’s epicenter 27 kilometers south-southeast of Muisne, in the province of Esmeraldas. The earthquake, which struck at a depth of 19 kilometers, also hit southern Colombia and northern Peru, but no casualties were reported there. In Quito, about 170 kilometers from the epicenter, the earthquake was felt for about 40 seconds, and frightened people fled buildings into the streets.
National authorities immediately deployed 10,000 soldiers and 3,500 police officers to assist in rescue efforts, and maintain law and order. The government also dispatched 200 firefighters to Pedernales in Manabí — one of the closest population centers to the epicenter — and 300 more to other cities throughout the coastal province, while the military mobilized canine units to aid the search for survivors and bodies.
“These have been sad days for the homeland,” President Rafael Correa said on national television. “The country is in crisis.”
Correa’s ambassador in Washington, Francisco José Borja Cevallos, told us he’s been heartened by the outpouring of assistance from the Ecuadorian diaspora living in the United States as well as the U.S. government.
“We have mobilized Ecuadorians living in this country, and have solicited help from the U.S. government,” he said. “Their response has been fantastic. Cargo planes have delivered more than 80 tons of humanitarian supplies.”
He added: “Tomorrow a plane will leave here carrying a portable control tower for the airport in Manta, which was damaged in the earthquake. Our foreign minister is meeting Todd Chapman, the U.S. ambassador in Quito, to evaluate our necessities.”
Yet the $600,000 initially committed by the Obama administration — plus another $6 million in food aid — is nothing compared to the $3 billion Correa’s leftist government estimates it will cost to rebuild.
On top of that, a steep drop in prices for crude oil, Ecuador’s chief export, has already devastated the economy in this nation of 16 million people. Its GDP grew by just 0.3 percent in 2015, and is likely to shrink this year unless petroleum rebounds.
“We’re suffering not just from low oil prices, but also because we use the U.S. dollar as our currency, and all our neighboring countries have devalued their currencies against the dollar,” said Borja. “So that means our exports are now less competitive.”
Borja, who took over as ambassador about a year ago, spoke to the Diplomatic Pouch from his mission in Washington’s Columbia Heights district. In a twist of irony, the embassy was one of the few buildings to suffer structural damage during the 5.8-magnitude quake that hit the D.C. metro area Aug. 23, 2011. It caused cracks on internal walls and collapsed three chimneys at the stately mansion fronting Fifteenth Street NW.
In recent days, that same embassy — along with Ecuador’s 11 consulates across the United States — has been the focal point for earthquake relief efforts in this country.
“In just a few days, we have collected almost 300 tons of food, and we have a 40-foot container ready to send to Ecuador. The diaspora community has responded marvelously,” he said, estimating the size of that community at around one million people — with concentrations in New York, New Jersey, Florida and California. About 6,000 Ecuadorians live in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
“But now, what we need most is money to buy what we need and rebuild the houses of those affected,” he said. “Very soon, we’re going to stop accepting food and clothing, and accept only cash. More than 25,000 people are homeless.”
To that end, a local diaspora organization is planning an April 30 fundraising event at the embassy, called “Campaña Mano Amiga” for earthquake victims.
The lunch and cocktail party, which goes from noon until 6 p.m. will include live music by local artists, auctions of original paintings, raffles, games and other activities. A minimum $20 donation will cover food, with proceeds going directly to Ecuador.
The party is jointly organized by the Federation of Ecuadorian Entities Abroad (FEDEE in Spanish) and the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation (HCEF).
“I’m doing this because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Ecuadorians in great need of help, and I believe anyone in a position to help in anyway possible should do it,” said Alex Ormaza, a Maryland-based journalist and president of FEDEE’s Washington chapter. “Before the earthquake, Ecuadorians were already going through hardship as a result of living in an oil-dependent economy. This is just going to make things worse for them. They need all the help they can get.”
FEDEE’s goal, said Ormaza, is to build from scratch 30 houses, rebuild 30 houses and provide construction material to 40 families with the ability to build their own homes with these materials. All told, these construction projects will create 500 jobs and improve the lives of 700 to 1,000 people.
The organization has already sent food, water and other supplies to quake victims in Portoviejo, which received the shipment April 23. Those wishing to donate money can do so online, or through Citibank (account number 36360112 / Terremoto Ecuador).
Borja told us he’s confident that whatever money comes to his country won’t be embezzled or wasted, as was the case following the January 2010 earthquake that destroyed much of Haiti. In addition, the ambassador is urging people to open up their wallets and checkbooks before donor fatigue sets in.
“We are prepared for that. It always happens,” he said. “We must take advantage of the first days and weeks of enthusiasm. That’s why we’ve organized the community so quickly. I think we’ll be successful.”