Ecuadorians struggle to rebound from earthquake devastation. Losses are great for families and the nation's economy
``There are lots of people still there, without food and with no way out. The helicopters have reached the nearest villages, but not the people further in,'' says a survivor from Reventador, a town in the northeastern foothills of the Ecuadorian Andes. The earthquakes that struck a week ago have left over 1,000 people dead and several thousand missing. The government calculates that nearly 100,000 people have been affected by the tremors and the huge landslides and floods they produced.
The epicenter of the main quake was close to El Reventador, an active volcano that last erupted 11 years ago. The small, scattered farming communities around Reventador were harder hit by the mud avalanches and swollen rivers that buried or swept away roads and towns than by the quakes themselves.
``It was after 8:00 in the evening. We were just getting ready for bed when the house began to move. We ran out into the open, imploring God not to punish us. After it stopped, we were still afraid, but we went in to our beds. We were asleep - and then the house was falling down on top of us.'' Like many others, Lupe Fuentes, who is six months pregnant, lost all her possessions.
``We had a farm near the river with coffee, bananas, manioc, and chickens. The river seemed to fill up, and it took everything. There's nothing there now, no food. The oil workers at the camp gave us something to eat, but they didn't have much. I walked 20 kilometers (12 miles) with her'' - she points to her 6-year-old daughter - ``and then managed to get transport to Lago Agrio.''
After sleeping in the airport for two days, she got on a military plane to Quito. Her husband has gone back to fetch the remaining five children and to look for relatives. While many from the area have families in the highlands prepared to help them, Lupe does not: ``I don't know what we'll do, we're country people. If the earth stops shaking, and they fix the road, I suppose we might go back and make a new life.''
Jacinto Cell'an, who lost his wife and daughter when the engineer's camp where they worked was buried in mud, has little to go back for. ``I worked as a tailor - my family, my house, and my sewing machine are gone. My three grandchildren need to be taken care of - they're with some people in another town. I'll be going there to see if I can find work.''
Many highland villagers have been sleeping out, camping in makeshift shelters of wood and plastic sheeting. In the capital, chunks of masonry have fallen off fine colonial church towers, and old buildings housing schools and offices are unsafe.
The government, already burdened by foreign debt problems, now faces a big loss in foreign earnings and a massive reconstruction effort. Some 15 miles of the trans-Andean pipeline, which carries oil from Lago Agrio in the Amazon region to the refinery at Balao, have been swept away. Repairs are expected to cost $150 million and take five months. During this period, some $370 million worth of exports will be forfeited. The government has said it will defer payments on its debt to foreign banks for the rest of the year.
A link to be built to Colombia's southern pipeline will allow from 30,000 to 50,000 barrels a day to be shipped in. Gasoline is rationed and cars are allowed on the road every other day. Despite these steps and 5 million barrels of oil from Venezuela, Ecuador will be hard put to keep the local market supplied.
President Le'on Febres Cordero has called for unity and talked with the opposition, generating a welcome truce between the government and Congress. He estimates the cost of the quakes at $600 million, a third of the national budget.
There have been 27 tremors in the past week, and families are reluctant to stay in the area to try to rebuild their lives. Little has been heard from the Indian communities, which are far away from the main villages. Indian groups hope that aid can be taken to the area so people will not have to leave the land they depend on for survival.
Several countries have promised aid, but the delay in realizing how serious the situation was has meant the assistance has been slow to arrive.