Alejandro Armas/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Fisherman Jairo Enrique Alava Puertes, whose home was destroyed in the April 16 earthquake that struck Ecuador, works in his boat with his daughters in the fishing village of Don Juan.

Ecuador's earthquake: Amid pressure to recover, social divides melt away

Citizens of all economic and political stripes rallied support following last month's earthquake, softening the blow of today's 6.7 temblor.

Fisherman Jairo Enrique Alava Puertes was inspecting his daily haul before rowing home on the evening of April 16 when the ocean around him began to bubble furiously, as though boiling.

His small wooden rowboat jerking from side to side, Mr. Puertes looked toward the shoreline just in time to see the blue house next to his own crumble to the ground.

“When I saw my [own] house collapse, I prayed to God that nothing happened to my daughters,” Puertes says, wiping away tears. “I thought they were inside.”

On Wednesday, almost exactly a month after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Ecuador’s Pacific coast, killing 661 and leaving around 30,000 homeless, another quake rattled the same coastal region. Today’s 6.7-magnitude temblor further harmed already damaged homes and cut electrical lines; one death has been reported so far.

Despite the shock and fear of waking up to yet another earthquake here, the nationwide response to last month’s damage has created an understanding in small coastal towns like Don Juan that residents aren’t alone and that their compatriots – near and far – are ready to help.

Ecuador has become increasingly politically polarized over the past decade that President Rafael Correa has been in office. In recent months, the small South American nation has suffered an economic recession amid plummeting oil prices, leading to government layoffs and higher import taxes.

And although there was fierce debate following the president’s proposal of a “solidarity law” that would temporarily increase sales tax and require wealthy citizens to forgo a portion of their salaries to help pay for earthquake relief, many here have been heartened by how quickly citizens of all economic classes and regions united in the disaster’s aftermath. Beyond government requests, Ecuadoreans eagerly jumped in to lend a hand. Those that didn’t have emergency response skills used other tools, such as social media, the arts, and past personal experience in disaster zones to offer help and rally support.

“Nobody called these people. Nobody organized these people,” says Cecilia Dávila, a Quito resident who worked as an emergency coordinator for UNICEF in Latin America for 25 years. 

“There was no political party. There was no church. There was nothing. It was just civil society going to see what we can do there.”

'We're all living the catastrophe'

Donations of food, water, clothing, and hygienic supplies poured in from around the country following April’s temblor, and young people flocked in droves to Quito’s Parque la Carolina to help load trucks heading for the coast with police escort. According to a recent government estimate, over 57,000 volunteers helped deliver around 464,000 food kits.

When Ms. Dávila saw that her vacation home in Don Juan was destroyed in the quake, she and her husband set up an impromptu volunteer camp next to the ruins to accommodate young people showing up to lend a hand. She says most of the volunteers had no prior experience in disaster zones. Many got permission from their universities or employers to take off a few days to help out.

“The feeling of the young people really surprised me. They didn’t have any contact with [the coastal province of] Manabí before. They didn’t know each other. They just came together for this,” says Dávila. There was a sense of, "'This is my country … I don’t know what to do, I don’t know anything about helping or first aid, but I want to help.’”

That sentiment crossed international borders with calls for support via social media. An Ecuadorean living in North Carolina set up a fundraising website to help buy antiretroviral medication for those with HIV/AIDS in coastal towns where hospital access was cut off.

When children’s books arrived in Don Juan in response to a Facebook request, resident Rut Roman loaded them into her donkey’s saddlebags. She used them to host a daily reading hour for kids who were out of school while damage to the buildings was assessed. The quake damaged or destroyed 560 schools, according to UNICEF.

A theater group in the coastal city of Manta put out a call on Facebook for artists to join in the “Art for Life Caravan” that would perform up and down the Pacific coast in affected areas.

On May 6, the caravan arrived in Don Juan. Young actors, dancers, and musicians decked out in face paint and colorful costumes poured into the dusty town square, where members of the military have been stationed since the quake.

Puertes, the fisherman, and his wife, Carmen, brought their three youngest daughters to the show. Puertes’ weary face lit up when the main character, a cranky but wise, bespectacled woman named Piedad was dragged out of the audience and onto the make-believe stage.

The kids howled and adults clapped as Piedad and another character kicked off a slapstick routine with her falling and throwing out her back, and his efforts to help causing her skirt to fly over her head.

But the square grew quiet as their conversation turned to the earthquake.

“We have to remember that it’s not right to put the blame on anyone,” Piedad told the crowd. “Not the devil, not mother nature. Earthquakes are a natural phenomenon and we as human beings have to confront them” together, she said.

As the show finished, Piedad, still in character, smiling and embracing children who crowded around her, headed toward the town’s church. She was crying as she closed the church's blue glass door behind her. Actress Rocio Reyes says performing as Piedad has been a “life lesson.”

“We’re all living the catastrophe, and each time we perform we see in people their pain, anguish, and also their hope. We feel connected to them,” says Ms. Reyes.

“It was beautiful to see the kids dancing together, smiling,” Mrs. Puertes says, following the show. “We need this humanitarian help as well as monetary help.”

'Don't come!'

The National Assembly approved Mr. Correa’s “solidarity law” on May 12. The next phase of relief will be reconstruction, which will likely fall to government agencies, rather than unskilled volunteers. But Dávila says that people are still calling her to see how they can help.

“We’re telling them don’t come!,” she says. “We need people to help us to build houses, so we need more expertise now.

“In Ecuador what we learned with this earthquake is that we care. Ecuadorean people care about Ecuadorean people.”

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