By Ana Isabel Martinez and Julia Symmes Cobb
PORTOVIEJO/PEDERNALES, Ecuador, April 19 – Touring a city ravaged by the earthquake that killed at least 413 people, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa on Monday said rebuilding would cost billions of dollars and may inflict a “huge” toll on the fragile OPEC nation’s economy.
Two days after the magnitude 7.8 quake, traumatized survivors begged Correa for water in the city of Portoviejo, while a soccer stadium in the beach town of Pedernales served as a makeshift relief centre and morgue.
Afraid of staying indoors, or with no home to go back to, families huddled in the streets, while police and soldiers patrolled in a bid to control looting.
Seeing the devastation first hand, a visibly moved and grim-faced Correa warned that Ecuador‘s biggest disaster in decades would put a big toll on the poor Andean country of 16 million people.
Relief workers were confronted with swathes of flattened homes, roads and bridges as they surveyed the destruction wrought by Saturday night’s quake, and the death toll was expected to rise.
“Reconstruction will cost billions of dollars,” said Correa in Portoviejo, where survivors swarmed him asking for aid. The economic impact “could be huge,” he added later.
Plunging income from oil, Ecuador‘s biggest earner, had already consigned economic growth forecasts to near zero this year. and exports of bananas, flowers, cocoa beans and fish could be slowed by ruined roads and port delays.
The energy industry, fortunately, escaped any serious damage and the main refinery of Esmeraldas was due to start up again on Monday night and reach full capacity in a week.
Michael Henderson, at risk consultancy Maplecroft, said Ecuador was less well equipped to recover than Chile, where a 2010 earthquake caused an estimated $30 billion in damage.
“Whereas Chile’s economy was rebounding strongly from the global financial crisis …, Ecuadorhas been slowing sharply recently as lower oil prices depress activity,” he said.
“But total damage to assets in dollar terms may be quite a bit lower than in Chile due to the smaller magnitude of the earthquake and the fact that Ecuador is a much poorer country.”
To finance the costs of the emergency, some $600 million in credit from multilateral lenders was immediately activated, the government said.
Ecuador also announced late on Monday that it had signed off on a credit line for $2 billion from the China Development Bank (CDB) to finance public investment. China has been the largest financier of Ecuador since 2009 and the credit had been under negotiation before the quake.
The disaster may also push Correa, a leftist, to seek help from the International Monetary Fund, consultancy Eurasia said.
“Such dynamics increase the odds of Correa turning to an IMF Program for support, an option he has so far resisted, and the earthquake could provide him with political cover to do so,” it said.
PLEAS FOR HELP, SPORADIC LOOTING
The quake struck Saturday night along the northwest coast, while Correa was in Italy. Vice President Jorge Glas – a potential candidate to succeed Correa in elections next February – flew into the disaster zone within hours to oversee rescue and relief efforts.
But some survivors complained about lack of electricity and supplies, and aid had still not reached some areas. The number of injured rose to over 2,600.
Shaken Ecuadoreans lined up for food and blankets, slept in the rubble of their destroyed homes or congregated in the street after the most destructive quake since a 1979 magnitude 7.7 quake killed at least 600 people and injured 20,000, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Fears of looting spread as in Portoviejo people stole clothes and shoes from wrecked buildings and police tried to control crowds. A former social security building was ransacked for aluminum window frames and cables by people hoping to sell the materials.
“I have to take some advantage from this horrible tragedy. I need money to buy food. There’s no water, no light, and my house was destroyed,” said Jorge Espinel, 40, who works in the recycling business.
Elsewhere, armed men robbed two trucks carrying water, clothes and other basics to quake-hit beach locality Pedernales.
There, survivors curled up on mattresses or plastic chairs next to flattened homes. Soldiers and police patrolled streets while rescuers searched for any survivors.
Tents sprang up in the town’s football stadium, where relief workers treated the injured, distribute water, food and blankets, and stacked coffins.
Numbed by their trauma, bruised and bandaged survivors wandered around, while the more seriously injured were evacuated to hospitals.
AFTERSHOCKS, AID, PRISON BREAK
Over 300 aftershocks rattled the sticken region, leaving survivors huddled in the streets, fearful that their already damaged homes would cave-in.
“We’re scared of being in the house,” said Yamil Faran, 47, in Portoviejo. “When … the aftershocks stop, we’re going to see if we can repair it.”
Some 130 inmates climbed over the collapsed walls of the town’s low-security El Rodeo prison, although more than 35 were recaptured.
The government has mobilized about 13,500 security personnel to the affected areas.
Nearly 400 rescue workers flew in from various Latin American neighbors, along with 83 specialists from Switzerland and Spain. The United States said it would dispatch a team of disaster experts while Cuba was sending a team of doctors.
Three Cuban doctors working in Ecuador died when a building collapsed on them during the quake, Cuban television said. Two Canadians and one U.S. citizen were also among the dead. And Britain’s Guardian newspaper said Sister Clare Theresa Crockett, 33, a missionary nun from Derry in Northern Ireland, was killed.