Ecuador quake toll rises to 350; rebuilding to cost billions

PORTOVIEJO/PEDERNALES, Ecuador (Reuters) – The death toll rose to 350 yesterday from a devastating earthquake that hit Ecuador at the weekend, as rescuers hunted for survivors, victims clamoured for aid and looting broke out in the Andean nation’s shattered coastal region.

More than 2,000 people were injured in Saturday night’s 7.8 magnitude quake, which ripped apart buildings and roads and knocked out power along the Pacific coastline.

President Rafael Correa, giving the new tally of fatalities from the town of Portoviejo inside the disaster zone, told Reuters the number of dead had risen to 350 but it was feared that would rise further.

“Reconstruction will cost billions of dollars,” said Correa, as survivors begged him for water, adding later yesterday that the impact on economic growth “could be huge.”

The normally upbeat socialist president looked deeply moved as he chatted with victims during a tour of the destroyed town in the South American OPEC nation, which was already suffering from the global slump in crude oil prices.

One US citizen is confirmed to have died in the quake, the State Department said yesterday, and Britain’s Guardian newspaper said Sister Clare Theresa Crockett, 33, a missionary nun from Derry in Northern Ireland, also died.

It has been decades since such a strong quake struck Ecuador. In 1979, a magnitude 7.7 quake killed at least 600 people and injured 20,000, according to the US Geological Survey.

In other parts of Portoviejo, people stole clothes and shoes from wrecked buildings as police tried to control crowds. Armed men robbed two trucks carrying water, clothes and other basics to quake-hit beach locality Pedernales from the city of Guayaquil, authorities said, as fears of looting spread.

To the north in Pedernales, survivors curled up on mattresses or plastic chairs next to flattened homes. Overnight, soldiers and police had patrolled the hot, dark streets while rescuers searched for survivors.

Earlier, firefighters entered a partially destroyed house to look for three children and a man apparently trapped inside, as a crowd gathered to watch.

“My little cousins are inside. Before, there were noises, screams. We must find them,” pleaded Isaac, 18.

Tents sprang up in the intact stadium to store bodies, treat the injured, and distribute water, food and blankets. Bruised and bandaged survivors wandered around while the more seriously injured were evacuated to hospitals.

The quake is doubly disastrous for Ecuador as economic growth was already forecast near zero this year due to plunging oil income.

The energy industry appeared largely intact although the main refinery of Esmeraldas was closed as a precaution. However, exports of bananas, flowers, cocoa beans and fish could be slowed by ruined roads and port delays.

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 …, Ecuador has 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.”

The quake could also play into political dynamics ahead of next year’s presidential election.

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