Pedernales, Ecuador – The citizens of Pedernales are used to living with tectonic activity, minor tremors rattling their homes from time to time.
With a population of around 50,000 people, the small resort city sits on Ecuador’s long Pacific coast.
Low-rise hotels, shops and houses line wide streets that slope gradually down to the beach. Larger hotels jostle for position on the seafront.
But the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shook Ecuador on Saturday April 16, has changed the city beyond recognition. It has been decades since an earthquake of such large magnitude hit this previously peaceful stretch of coast.
Whole streets have been flattened, houses and shops lying in rubble. The buildings that are still standing lean out over the road at impossible angles.
In the city’s small main square, a huge crack runs down the centre of the church’s mosaic-covered wall.
Local people now truly understand the devastating power of the tectonic plates shifting beneath their feet.
“It was around 7pm when everything began to shake. Everything was falling around me, buildings crashing down on themselves. There were people running and dead bodies everywhere,” said one woman whose house was badly damaged in the earthquake.
In the immediate aftermath, emergency services rushed in from across Ecuador to search for survivors. Several people were pulled from the rubble still alive as rescue teams sifted through collapsed buildings.
A few days later, international aid agencies such as the UNHCR and Doctors Without Borders started to arrive to contribute to the relief effort for displaced people.
Outside the city’s church, people whose homes had been destroyed hung around in small groups. They whiled away the hours chatting on wooden pews that had been carried out on to the street. A life-size figure of Christ, salvaged from the wreckage, lay looking up at the sky on a nearby bench.
Colonel Victor Arauz, director of DINASED – Ecuador’s national police agency leading the search for missing people – praised his country’s government for its fast response to the crisis.
“In reality, dealing with the aftermath of an earthquake is incredibly complex. But the immediate response by the government has been crucial in starting to get this city back to normal as fast as possible,” he said.
The relief operation for displaced people in the city has been criticised by some. One source from an international aid agency, who asked to remain unnamed, said coordination on the ground was “chaotic” and labelled conditions in the city’s field hospital “unsanitary”.
The city’s mayor, Gabriel Alcivar, admitted that the disaster had overwhelmed the resources of local authorities.
“We are not accustomed to such big earthquakes here in Pedernales. We’re used to small tremors. As a local authority, we simply aren’t prepared to deal with this,” he said.
In the first few days after the earthquake, specialist heavy machinery required to search for survivors in the rubble was scarce.
“After an earthquake of such a large magnitude, we don’t have many of the tools that we need to recover bodies and perhaps survivors from collapsed buildings,” said Fernando Gandarillas, a spokesperson for the Ecuadorian Red Cross.
He added that the other main challenge in the early days of the emergency response was finding enough drinking water to sustain the quake’s survivors.
But Colonel Arauz, director of the national police agency leading the search for missing people, rejected allegations of a chaotic response from Ecuador’s local and national authorities.
“Nobody can be completely prepared to deal with an earthquake. It’s an entirely unpredictable event. The important thing is that local, national and international authorities are contributing to supporting affected people,” he said.
More than a week after the earthquake struck, the challenge now for authorities is to find long-term shelter for the thousands of survivors.
Displaced people were still lining the main roads into town days after the quake. Their homes destroyed, whole families clustered under tarpaulins in makeshift camps. With nowhere else to go, they held out cardboard signs scrawled upon with pleas for water or help.
“The authorities should be doing a lot more. We haven’t seen any officials from the mayor’s office. I’m not saying that they’re not helping others, but their hands are full inside the city,” said Isabel Rosada, sitting outside her family’s crude shelter on the main road into town.
“We have a population in panic. There has been an exodus from the city – people are abandoning their homes,” said Alcivar, the mayor.
The few people left inside the city were being advised not to return to their damaged houses and businesses.
“My house is still standing but it’s unsafe. I don’t know when I’ll go home. Emotionally the situation is worse every day,” said Ramon Mielles, sitting under a marquee in the disaster relief headquarters set up in Pedernales’ sports stadium.
Aid workers are predicting that it will be many months before people like Ramon can start to return to their homes in the flattened city centre.
“We believe that work will have to continue for many years. Temporary housing needs to be built so that a family can live there for six or eight months in decent conditions,” said Cesar Aruena, head of the Colombian Red Cross disaster response team deployed to the area.
Costs of damage
As the national death toll climbs past 600, Ecuador’s government has estimated that the overall cost of the damage will rise to between $2bn and $3bn.
The disaster has struck as plunging oil revenues continue to batter the country’s economy. According to figures from the World Bank, annual GDP growth was already slowing significantly year on year before the quake hit.
Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa, has announced temporary tax hikes, the sale of some state assets and a potential international bond issue to pay for reconstruction.
Back in Pedernales, the city’s mayor is confident that they can begin to rebuild in the coming months: “People here are very disheartened and scared. But we will survive this. We have to keep on moving forward for our city,” said Alcivar.
But not everybody is so sure. As her family crouched under a tarpaulin to shelter from the fierce midday sun, local resident Isabel Rosada struggled to imagine what the future holds for her wrecked city.
“I doubt if Pedernales will ever get back to what it was. It will never be the same again. The truth is we just don’t know what is going to happen,” she said.