A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the coastal Ecuador early Saturday evening. The quake, the most powerful to hit Ecuador in decades, caused widespread damage in areas near the epicenter, with current figures showing more than 230 dead and more than 1,500 injured.
About 30 minutes before the earthquake, a smaller, 4.5 magnitude quake was recorded along the southern coast and more than 135 aftershocks have followed – including one measuring as high as 6 magnitude – with the authorities pressing residents to brace for the possibility of even stronger ones to come.
More than 1,200 volunteers are already performing rescue operations and are working to evacuate and aid those affected by the quake. Red Cross Ecuador announced on Twitter that rescue crews are headed to the remote areas where the worst damage was reported.
Some 10,000 troops have also been deployed to aid in rescue operations along with 3,500 police officers and 500 firefighters.
President Rafael Correa declared a national state of emergency and is cutting short his visit to Rome to return to his country. Vice President Jorge Glas reported on the scope of the damage through an official Twitter account. He is currently working with with emergency rescue workers to reach the sparsely populated fishing villages and tourist beaches along the coast where the earthquake struck.
"This wasn't just a house that collapsed, it was an entire town," said Gabriel Alcivar, the mayor of Pedernales, whose town of 40,000 people is located near the epicenter — as reported by the Associated Press.
Multiple shelters have been established for those evacuated from their homes.
More than a dozen roads have been closed, and rescuers are having difficulty accessing towns because of to landslides and blocked roads.
The Ecuadorian national airline, TAME, has already coordinated with Red Cross Ecuador and the police reinforcements to organize two humanitarian airlifts.
“No Ecuadoran is alone,” Vice President Glas tweeted. “We will come out of this emergency stronger.”
Ecuador has a history of powerful earthquakes, with seven magnitude-7 or higher earthquakes occurring near the site of this latest tremor since 1900; most recently in March 1987 when a 7.2 magnitude earthquake killed 1,000 people. This recent earthquake, however, is the strongest since 1979, when an 8.0 magnitude quake rocked nearby Columbia and triggered a tsunami.
The country sits on what is known as the “Ring of Fire”, an arc of high seismic activity surrounding the Pacific basin – from southern Peru and Chile, north across the Aleutian chain in Alaska and down Japan into the South Pacific and Australia.
Speaking to journalists beside a meeting of oil-producing countries taking place in Qatar, Kabalan Abisaab, Ecuador's ambassador to Qatar, emphasized that his country is prepared for such disasters, although they can still create enormous destruction.
Addressing a crowd in The Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis asked listeners to pray for those suffering in the aftermath, saying, "may the help of God and of neighbors give them strength and support.”
“Everything can be rebuilt, but what can’t be rebuilt are human lives, and that’s the most painful,” said President Correa in a phone call before heading directly from Rome to the coastal Ecuadorian city of Manta.