Aftershocks, looters, and sleeping rough

The new normal in quake-hit Ecuador

Carolina Loza

IRIN Contributor

More than a week after a powerful earthquake devastated communities along Ecuador’s Pacific coast and claimed more than 650 lives, 29,000 people made homeless by the disaster are still in shelters. Many others are choosing to sleep outside their damaged homes to ward off looters.

In the city of Portoviejo, capital of hard-hit Manabi Province, the Rafael Maria Mendoza School has been turned into a temporary shelter for those displaced by the earthquake. But some residents prefer to sleep on the streets in front of what’s left of their homes rather than risk having their few remaining belongings stolen.

The district attorney’s office in the neighbouring city of Manta told IRIN that the authorities are struggling to cope with the number of complaints about looting. The armed forces have taken control of aid distribution, partly to keep relief kits out of the hands of criminal gangs.

"For now, there is no security,” Teresa Lopez, a Manta resident, told IRIN. “People come by on motorbikes. They come by slowly and one gets afraid.”

Lopez, who is sleeping outside her partially collapsed home, added that people sleeping in a nearby park had been robbed at gunpoint in recent days.

“What we need is security,” agreed Jose Miguel Mendoza, an architect who was among those gathered at the school to collect tents and mattresses.

Despite the threat from criminals, many people still feel safer under canvas than concrete. Pointing at the school, Mendoza said: “None of the people present want to be under structures that can collapse.”

Still rattled

More than 800 aftershocks have been registered in the past 10 days, causing renewed trauma for survivors of the initial 7.8-magnitude earthquake. Medical aid group Médecins Sans Frontières reported that many families are sleeping outside because of fears of another quake.

“Aftershocks have continued these last few days and this increases people’s psychological symptoms: they’re scared, worried and nervous,” said Gloria Perez, a project coordinator for MSF.

In a makeshift shelter made of billboards and bamboo sticks overlooking Tarqui Beach in Manta, residents panicked on Tuesday evening when a 5.9-magnitude aftershock sent groceries tumbling into the sand.

In Tarqui, Manta's waterfront business district and one of the oldest sections of the city, most of those made homeless by the earthquake have chosen to make makeshift arrangements with neighbours rather than move to the official shelters set up by the authorities elsewhere.

Daniela Villacreses, undersecretary for disaster preparedness with Ecuador’s National Secretariat for Risk Management, said efforts were being made to keep people close to their communities.

”When shelters and camps are established, one always tries for these to be as close as possible to the residences of displaced people… so people can keep their ties with their neighborhood, their work, the schools of their children,” she told IRIN.


Building woes

The process of assessing buildings for demolition has only just begun. It is unclear when people living in makeshift shelters will be moved to more permanent structures. There is also no word yet on what will happen when the schools being used as official shelters reopen at the start of the new academic year in early July.

For many displaced by the earthquake, the best option has been to move in with friends or extended family. It’s an approach the authorities are encouraging, although the government has so far stopped short of offering a stipend to host families until homes can be rebuilt.

Most buildings in the region are not constructed to withstand earthquakes. They are built from unreinforced brick masonry and mud walls, often by the same families that live in them and with no planning permission or supervision from professionals.

Vanessa Cano, who lost her home for the past decade in the town of Calceta, 80 kilometres from Manta, is staying with her sister-in-law. Like many, the 67-year-old has no idea what she will do next other than somehow rebuild her house. All she can do for the moment is keep thanking her sister-in-law for her “thoughtful hospitality”.

Vulnerable refugees

For an unknown number of Colombian refugees made homeless by the earthquake, moving in with relatives is unlikely to be an option.

Ecuador is home to more than 200,000 Colombians, about 60,000 of whom have been granted refugee status. Many of them live in the coastal areas hardest hit by the earthquake, but are scattered among local communities and therefore difficult to monitor.

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“Our worry is that vulnerable groups, among them refugees and asylum seekers, become invisible,” said Sonia Aguilar, spokeswoman for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, which has been distributing tents and helping to set up camps for the displaced.

“It is an extra hurdle for refugees if they have lost documents, or local authorities give preference for aid access to Ecuadorians before them,” she added.

Nancy Reynel, who fled violence in Colombia’s Tumaco region 20 years ago to start a new life with her husband in Manta, says she has experienced discrimination from her own neighbours during aid distributions. “They spot me in the queue and they say ‘You are Colombian’, and make me leave the queue,” she told IRIN.

Reynel and her husband are hosting five other Colombians displaced by the earthquake in their home, which is made of bamboo and sits in a parking lot. Among them is Fanny, who lost her job as a housekeeper at a hotel in Tarqui that collapsed.

“What will we do when our friends stop handing out groceries?” Fanny asked. “We have no tears left after all of this.”