For Maria Bele Artiaga, a wife and mother in her 50s, the massive earthquake that ripped much of Ecuador apart on April 16 was her second brush with natural disaster. She vividly describes her narrow escapes to ShelterBox responders, there to help Ecuadorians recover and rebuild.
Maria stands forlornly in front of what little remains of her family home on the outskirts of Portoviejo in the Manabi province. It was early evening a little over three weeks ago when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that was to kill 659 people and injure almost 28,000 began. It was felt as far away as Colombia and Peru, and in the following 24 hours over 55 aftershocks followed.
Maria was alone in her house that evening, watching TV. Her husband and son were out. Maria describes the unfolding horror.‘The entire house was shaking. I felt disorientated like I was in a whirlpool and everything was spinning and twirling around me. I ran outside, it was dark, I stumbled and fell heavily to the ground.’
‘Whilst laying on the floor the force of the quake threw my fridge out of the house and it landed on me, crushing my left side and pinning me to the ground. My left hip and leg were so bruised they were black and I walked with difficulty for days after. I could only lie in pain and watch as my house crumbled to the ground. I couldn’t move and I just watched in shock. I thought the world was ending.’
Then she heard her neighbour cry for help. ‘She sounded so terrified and I didn’t know if she was OK. I couldn’t walk and the earth was still moving, so gathering my strength I pulled myself free and crawled across the ground towards her house. Thankfully she was not harmed, just extremely shaken.’
Maria has had the misfortune to encounter nature’s fury before. ‘This is the second time I am losing my home. I am from Venezuela, and there my house was completely destroyed by a hurricane. I remember the noise and the lightning. Then I came to Ecuador to start a new life but it happened again. I need help.’ Maria, her husband and son are staying with her neighbours for the time being, but their next step is uncertain.
ShelterBox response team members Jonathan Berg and Celine Chhea had spotted Maria by the roadside near her shattered home at Higueron Afuera as they conducted assessments in rural communities outside Portoviejo. Celine describes their journey into the heart of the quake zone. ‘The effects of the earthquake are extremely sporadic. You can go several miles before seeing any destruction, and so when you do the level of sheer devastation is then often surprising.’
Travelling from community to community in the searing heat and facing the heart-breaking scenes that we come across certainly takes its toll. But nothing in comparison to those affected by the tragedy.
ShelterBox is distributing thousands of shelter kits in Ecuador. These contain tools and tarpaulins to either create rudimentary shelters or to repair and waterproof damaged buildings. It has also dispatched a shipment of boxes containing basics such as solar lighting, mosquito nets, blankets and water filtration equipment. The area is still facing a water crisis, as the local filtration plant was damaged in the quake, and field and crops remain contaminated with high-mineral floodwater. ShelterBox will be working with Progad, a local organization specializing in urban and social development projects. They were introduced by Habitat for Humanity, a charity that ShelterBox had previously partnered with in Chile and Panama.
Ecuador’s Portoviejo area, despite being among the worst hit with 516 known casualties, has seen little in the way of international aid, or help from the government or military.
Jon Berg says, ‘When meeting the Vice Mayor in Portoviejo, and being shown around a potential area for warehousing, we saw a large number of new coffins, stocked up still in their wrapping waiting to be used. This storage area is part of the municipal government complex, where 300 households are still staying in a camp setting – the caskets a reminder of those not so fortunate. In the port of Manta people were still at work in a funeral home next to the cemetery late into the evening, which possibly reflects the number of funerals still taking place.’
On the plus side, much of the electricity supply has been restored, as has the mobile phone network. Supplies of petrol, diesel and LPG are now guaranteed at a national level. Rubble clearance is still taking place, but there is little evidence yet of reconstruction. Jon adds, ‘Most people in the rural areas we have visited live in houses constructed from brick and cement. They do not have mortgages, but instead use any spare money they gather over time to buy materials. When a disaster such as this hits, due to their levels of poverty they have no option but to start this grueling process from scratch.’
On their fact-finding journey Jonathan and Celine heard another heart-rending story. Jon says, ‘In a village adjoining Rio Chico was a convent school. All that is left of it now is a very large area of rubble. The school was four floors high, and at the time of the earthquake there were five nuns on the ground floor and six on the top. When the quake shook the entire building collapsed. The noise was so loud that the entire community came running. A desperate rescue attempt ensued with everyone clearing the rubble as quickly as possible to try and save the lives of those trapped beneath it.’
‘The five nuns that were on the bottom floor perished but five that were on the top were pulled out alive, and are now recovering. The sixth did not make it. This story shows the strength of the community spirit and deep belief that hope remains in the most tragic of circumstances.’