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Revisiting Ecuador, two months after a devastating earthquake

Posted on: June 20, 2016 4:26 PM
Volunteers search for survivors in Portoviejo in the immediate aftermath of April’s earthquake. Recently, a group of Episcopalians visited the country to see the impact two months on.
Photo Credit: César Muñoz / Andes
Related Categories: disaster, earthquake, Ecuador, USA

[Episcopal News Service, by Lynette Wilson] The poor, women and children, suffer most in the aftermath of disaster. In Ecuador, where a massive earthquake killed more than 650 people and displaced more than 30,000 in April, in addition to trauma, grief and emotional wounds inflicted, women and children have experienced increased rates of domestic violence, and hunger has led to an increase in gastrointestinal and respiratory illness in children.

This reality left in the earthquake’s aftermath doesn’t make headlines or lend itself to photographs, but vicars serving the Diocese of Ecuador Litoral’s four mission churches here confront it every day in their communities. Moreover, it’s a reality that over a four-day period 9-12 June long-time companions representing four churches in the Diocese of Tennessee learned of first-hand.

During an informal gathering at St Joseph the Worker mission church, the Revd José Cantos Delgado, deacon-in-charge, described the situation. The church, which suffered minor structural damage, is located in the 15th of April, a canton where the “poorest of the poor” live and where squatters, common in Latin America, have built bamboo, brick and plywood structures behind the church.

“Ecuador has one of the highest rates of child abuse in South America,” said Cantos, adding that the earthquake and its associated stresses, food insecurity and job losses, have led to an increase in domestic violence, with women trying to protect their children and themselves.

St Joseph the Worker operates a day care centre for children in the community, where the daily lessons have focused the children’s emotional well-being, rather than learning, since the earthquake.

“The school is the vehicle for helping the children and their mothers, and that’s the most fundamental way of helping,” said Cantos. “It’s important to continue to work with women and children because they are the most affected.”

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck just off the central coast on 16 April in what people who lived through it described as a “long, slow wave” that led many to fear a tsunami would follow. In addition to the hundreds who died, more than 12,000 people suffered injuries. And a week later, aftershocks continued to rattle the country and peoples’ nerves.

Ecuador is covered by two dioceses, the Quito-based Diocese of Central Ecuador, and Ecuador Litoral, which stretches from Guayaquil, the country’s largest city and financial capital, north along the coast, an area popular with tourists and expatriates.

The earthquake caused an estimated $4 billion [USD, approximately £2.7 billion GBP] in structural damage, a staggering amount in a country economically beset by falling oil prices and now a drop in tourism as well.

“Nobody was prepared for the earthquake; it was like a movie,” said the Revd Betty Juarez Villamar, the only priest in the region, who serves both St Stephen’s Episcopal Church, a short drive from St Joseph the Worker, and St Paul’s Episcopal Church near the beach.

In the coastal community of Manta, a 3.5-mile drive north of Guayaquil, damaged buildings are scattered throughout the city and more than 580 already have been razed. A five-acre commercial district “ground zero” has been cordoned off for demolition. Many people live in makeshift encampments constructed from salvaged materials and others live in tents outside their homes around the area’s perimeter. Some displaced residents live in guarded areas in blue tents provided by the government of China.

The diocese’s first priority to help families achieve a sense of peace and security in the aftermath of the earthquake, said Ecuador Litoral Bishop Alfredo Morante. Beyond that, the diocese intends to help people rebuild their homes and find jobs.