By GONZALO SOLANO and REGINA GARCIA CANO (Associated Press)
QUITO, Ecuador (AP) – Some affectionately call Machala the “Banana Capital of the World.” This port community on Ecuador’s Pacific coast is home to about a quarter of a million people and is normally bustling with commercial activity. But not this weekend, not after the deadly earthquake.
Pain lingered in the air Sunday, a day after a powerful earthquake rocked this city, tearing down homes and buildings along the coast and into the Ecuadorian mountains and even parts of Peru.
Debris covered some streets in Machala. Neighbors held simple funerals to bury the dead. There is no longer a pier. And a day after the earthquake killed just nine residents along this hard-hit coastline, many in Machala were feeling worried and uneasy.
“The city is quiet, they feel fear and mourning,” said resident Luis Becerra. “You feel the pain, the drama, everywhere you go. Everyone is on alert, with great fear in case there is an aftershock.”
The earthquake, measured by the US Geological Survey at a magnitude of 6.8, shook parts of Ecuador and Peru on Saturday, killing at least 15 people and injuring more than 445. Fourteen of the victims died in Ecuador and one in Peru.
The earthquake affected and brought down hundreds of houses and buildings in very different communities, both in the coastal areas and in the mountainous areas. But in Ecuador, regardless of geography, many of the houses that collapsed had a lot in common: Many were old, many did not meet modern building code standards in such an earthquake-prone country, and many of their residents were poor .
Yajaira Albarracín, Graciela Chila, Silvina Zambrano Chila and two children died under the rubble of their house in a low-income neighborhood in Machala. On Sunday, several neighbors stopped by a tent where the women’s coffins were placed with some floral arrangements and a standing crucifix. Some relatives said rescuers found the bodies of women and children as if they had been clutching each other when the disaster struck.
The quake struck just off the Pacific coast, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second-largest city. Of the country’s 14 victims, 12 died in the southwestern coastal state of El Oro, which includes Machala, and two died in the mountainous state of Azuay.
Ecuador is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. In 2016, an earthquake that struck further north on the Pacific coast in a less populated part of the country killed more than 600 people.
Hamilton Cedillo, a resident of Machala, said on Sunday that he and his family barely slept in the following hours for fear of deadly aftershocks. They developed an evacuation plan and watched videos on how to protect themselves in the event of another earthquake.
“I’m afraid to leave and my family will be left here alone at home,” Cedillo said.
Pope Francis offered prayers for the victims during his weekly Sunday noon blessing.
“I am close to the Ecuadorian people and I assure them of my prayers for the dead and the suffering,” Francis said.
Ecuador’s government issued an emergency declaration covering roads in Azuay, where earthquake debris cut off several roads and worsened already bad conditions attributed to winter storms. One of the victims in that state was a passenger in a vehicle crushed by debris from a house in the community of Cuenca.
In El Oro, according to the Secretariat of Risk Management, Ecuador’s emergency response agency, several people were trapped under rubble or in damaged buildings, unable to escape immediately.
Quito-based architect Germán Narváez said the houses most affected by the earthquake tend to be poorly built, lacking solid foundations and deficient in structure and technical design. He added that the most vulnerable houses are often old and built with materials such as adobe, once commonly used in Andean communities.
“At critical moments of seismic movements, they tend to collapse,” he said of such houses.
Juan Vera lost three relatives when the earthquake destroyed his niece’s house. The government offered to pay for the burial of the woman and her child and her partner.
Now Vera questions why local authorities ever allowed her relatives to live in such an old house, saying the municipality should better regulate the condition of such buildings and ensure that only those that are truly safe are rented or occupied.
“Because of its age, that building should have already been demolished,” Vera said of the place where her relatives died. ___
Garcia Cano reported from Caracas, Venezuela.