Saturday 3 December 2016

Race against time to find survivors buried after Ecuador earthquake as death toll rises to over 400 people

Published 19/04/2016 | 06:47

A flattened car is seen under the debris of a collapsed building, after an earthquake struck off the Pacific coast, in town of Canoa, Ecuador April 18, 2016
A flattened car is seen under the debris of a collapsed building, after an earthquake struck off the Pacific coast, in town of Canoa, Ecuador April 18, 2016
Soldiers carry water from a truck after an earthquake struck off the Pacific coast, in the town of Canoa, Ecuador, April 18, 2016
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa (R) embraces a resident after the earthquake, which struck off the Pacific coast, in the town of Canoa, Ecuador April 18, 2016

Rescuers are in a race against the clock to find survivors from a powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake as the death toll from Ecuador's strongest eruption in decades rose above 400.

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Teams from Ecuador and neighbouring countries fanned out across the country's Pacific coastline to look for the dozens of people still missing.

Soldiers carry water from a truck after an earthquake struck off the Pacific coast, in the town of Canoa, Ecuador, April 18, 2016
Soldiers carry water from a truck after an earthquake struck off the Pacific coast, in the town of Canoa, Ecuador, April 18, 2016

In the port city of Manta, a group of about 50 rescuers working with sniffer dogs, hydraulic jacks and a drill managed to free eight people trapped for more than 32 hours in the rubble of a shopping centre flattened by Saturday night's quake.

The first rescue took place before dawn, when a woman was pulled head first from a nearly two and a half-foot hole cut through concrete and steel. Firefighters applauded as she emerged from the debris, disoriented, caked in dust and complaining of pain, but otherwise in good health.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa (R) embraces a resident after the earthquake, which struck off the Pacific coast, in the town of Canoa, Ecuador April 18, 2016
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa (R) embraces a resident after the earthquake, which struck off the Pacific coast, in the town of Canoa, Ecuador April 18, 2016

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Another uplifting scene played out in nearby Portoviejo, where a mobile phone call to a relative from under the debris of a collapsed hotel led searchers to Pablo Cordova, the hotel's administrator. He was gingerly removed, immobilised and hauled away on a stretcher, his hands waving in the air in a sign of appreciation to cheering onlookers.

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"Since Saturday, when this country started shaking, I've slept only two hours and haven't stopped working," said Juan Carranza, one of the firefighters leading the rescue effort in Portoviejo.

Despite such cheering moments, tragedy continued to mount. At the shopping centre in Manta, authorities were working to free a woman they had found buried alive with a heavy concrete slab pinning her legs when an aftershock forced them to abandon the effort. When they returned the debris pile had moved and the woman was dead, said Angel Moreira, a firefighter co-ordinating the effort.

The government said the official death count had increased to 413 and was expected to rise further in the days ahead. Among the dead were an American and two Canadians.

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Complicating rescue efforts is the lack of electricity in many areas, meaning noisy power generators must be used, making it harder to hear anyone who might be trapped beneath rubble.

Christian Rivera, head of emergency services for the capital Quito, said depending on the circumstances, a person without serious injuries could survive up to a week in such conditions.

"After that there's a quick decline and the rescuers' work becomes very difficult," he said.

Some 450 rescue workers from Spain, Peru, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and elsewhere are working in the areas with the most damage. The US has also offered assistance but so far President Rafael Correa, a strong critic of its foreign policy in Latin America, has yet to respond publicly.

The left-wing leader boarded a military helicopter to deliver water, food and other supplies to devastated areas.

He urged people to remain united in what is likely to be a long rebuilding process that could cost billions of dollars. "The priority is to direct resources where there are signs of life," he said.

After a deadly earthquake in 2010, Chile was able to get back on its feet quickly thanks to a commodities boom that was energising its economy.

But Ecuador must rebuild amid a deep recession that has forced austerity on the OPEC nation's finances. To assist in the recovery effort, Ecuador plans to draw down on some £420 million in credit lines from the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and other multilateral lenders.

Manta, a thriving city, is among the areas hit hardest by the earthquake. Power cables lie in city streets and electricity remains out in many neighbourhoods. Among the many building flattened by the shaking was a control tower at the airport that was home to US anti-drugs missions in South America until Correa kicked the Americans out.

As humanitarian aid begun trickling in, long lines formed as people sought to buy bottled water. Many residents are sleeping outdoors in makeshift camps or in the street cuddled next to neighbours.

Spain's Red Cross said as many as 5,000 people might need temporary housing because of destroyed homes and 100,000 need some sort of aid.

Press Association

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