Ecuador looks to pick up pieces and rebuild after devastating earthquake

It’s been just over a month since a deadly earthquake devastated Ecuador’s Pacific coast, destroying thousands of buildings and impacting at least a quarter-million people. As the government struggles with recovery costs and moves to rebuild, the disaster has also highlighted the need for tougher buildings codes — and enforcement. Special correspondents Bruno Frederico and Nadja Drost report.

Read the Full Transcript


    It's been just over a month since a major earthquake devastated swathes of countryside and towns on Ecuador's Pacific coast; 663 people are officially confirmed dead.

    And, as thousands more face the loss of their homes or workplace, videographer Bruno Federico and special correspondent Nadja Drost bring us this report from Manabi province on Ecuador's coast, where people are trying to rebuild their towns and lives.

  • ALFREDO JAMA, Fisherman (through interpreter):

    That night was unforgettable. I was bringing up the net, when, suddenly, I felt the boat vibrating too much. It was like the floor burst open.


    It's the first time that fisherman Alfredo Jama has dared to return out to sea since an earthquake caught him by surprise on April 16th when he was fishing.

  • ALFREDO JAMA (through interpreter):

    When I looked around, I saw an explosion that left us without light. Everything was dark. The sea bellowed from beneath. It was like there was a beast coming up from under. When I returned to the house, everything was a disaster.


    Jama's wife, Paola Farias, walked us through what used to be the two-story home of their extended family, which she also used for her nail salon.

  • PAOLA FARIAS, Salon Owner (through interpreter):

    When I said, don't worry, it's over, was when the movement started more strongly. The walls started falling. We managed to leave the house. It was terrible, because imagine how one works so hard for one's things, and from one moment to another, nothing.


    Farias is one of at least 250,000 Ecuadorians directly affected by an earthquake that knocked down thousands of buildings. It also set off an outpouring of support from fellow Ecuadorians, like Karla Morales, the director of local human rights group Kahre.

    She was at home in the city of Guayaquil, over 150 miles south of the epicenter, the night the quake hit.


    And in that moment, I just sent a tweet.


    "Bring supplies to my house tomorrow," Karla wrote, and she'd drive them north to the earthquake-affected region the next afternoon.


    And I didn't expect that people were so interested in helping and with so much compassion and solidarity. There were like 600 or maybe 1,000 people in my house, bringing help and helping with all that donations that we were receiving in that moment.


    Karla ended up sending 23 large truckloads of materials that day. Since then, her team continues to distribute donations, from water filters to mattresses, to rural areas, where help has been slower to reach.

    Ecuador hadn't expected an earthquake, but preparing for a different emergency, a volcanic eruption and flooding, helped it respond quickly, says Tim Callaghan of USAID.


    Many of the countries in this region, Peru, and Paraguay, and including Ecuador, obviously were planning for potential negative impacts from El Nino flooding. Thankfully, that hasn't been as severe as was forecast, but it did force Ecuador and other countries to plan for emergencies.


    And that meant Ecuador's government already had a certain level of resilience and emergency coordination to activate search-and-rescue and channel aid to people, he told us.

    After getting frozen out of Ecuador two years ago for political reasons, USAID is one of many international groups sending experts in. The U.S. has donated nearly $3 million of humanitarian aid towards relief efforts. The needs are still great. Callaghan points to water, sanitation and shelter as the most pressing.

    Over 28,000 people are living in shelters, most run by the military. Others are living in parks or makeshift refuges, where aid is harder to come by. Its scarcity led to this near brawl in Manta after people outside the neighborhood tried to claim rations.

    But as it looks towards renewal, Ecuador first has to ask some tough questions over why the destruction was so extensive. As municipal employees in the city of Portoviejo fly drones to evaluate the damages, they reveal a devastating picture of what went wrong.

    And that's a lot, says Patricio Velez, the head of territorial development for the city of Portoviejo.

  • PATRICIO VELEZ, Director General, Territorial Development (through interpreter):

    There was a lot of informality, constructions without permits. People would add on a third floor. It took us by surprise. There were new buildings that collapsed and old ones that stood up.


    Ecuador is used to plenty of small quakes, and its building code has developed over the years to include seismic considerations, says Jaime Argudo, a structural engineer. But he says that up to 85 percent of buildings are constructed without planning for an earthquake.

  • JAIME ARGUDO, Structural Engineer:

    There is also a major issue in our country, and many countries around the world, that building codes are not properly enforced.


    Now the consequences of poor building materials and construction are devastatingly obvious.

    In Portoviejo, a city of 300,000 people, the area hit hardest by the earthquake was also the city's economic center and downtown. Here, in what's being called the city's ground zero, everything is shut down. Two-thirds of buildings inspected so far are either collapsed, or severely damaged, and demolition is in full swing. Now, this battered city faces rebuilding its economy, and its future.

    As Velez points to how much of ground zero will be leveled, he also sees a clean slate, an opportunity for Portoviejo to reinvent itself and become more resilient.

  • PATRICIO VELEZ (through interpreter):

    The city grew in a disorderly fashion, without planning. We should take advantage of this moment now.


    But to carry out new urban plans and reconstruction across the region will take big money, just as Ecuador's economy struggles against plummeting oil prices.

    President Rafael Correa, an economist, estimated it could cost $3 billion. As he surveyed the damages of a neighborhood outside of Manta, we asked how he plans to make that happen.

  • PRESIDENT RAFAEL CORREA, Ecuador (through interpreter):

    We have a contingency loan from the World Bank and the IDB for over $600 million. We will probably reach over a billion, and we have taken a line of credit that will give us another billion dollars. If all the lines of credit work out, we will have over $2 billion for reconstruction. However, I think we're going to need more, but for the short term, it's a significant amount.


    The government has taken several special measures, such as raising the national sales tax and getting higher-income earners to forego part of their salary, to build up earthquake recovery funds.

    Some communities have already had to rebuild following a natural disaster. Here in the town of San Vicente, Farias and Jama's house was first destroyed by an earthquake in 1998. After they rebuilt it, floods from El Nino washed it away.

  • PAOLA FARIAS (through interpreter):

    And now, it fell, including the roof. Three disasters have happened to us, and thank God we're alive, and we have to keep going and start rebuilding.


    But recovery will take more than reconstruction. reviving local economies and people's livelihoods is a pressing challenge, yet slow to realize. But in trying to figure out how, many residents are thinking bigger, says Morales.


    I think this has been an earthquake that destroyed houses, but rebuilt minds. In the suffering, they are very hopeful. They are like, teach me. I want to learn something else.


    While many look for new ways to make a living, others want to restart their business. For Farias, that was her nail salon.

  • PAOLA FARIAS (through interpreter):

    When the house fell, you had to survive, one way or another. When I saw there was something left of my business, I decided, OK, I will start from zero. And here we are.


    Farias and her family want to move to a new lot. It appears they already know how to rebuild.

    From Manabi province in Ecuador, reporting with Bruno Federico, I'm Nadja Drost for the "PBS NewsHour."


    On our Web site, learn about a special mapping project that's helping in Ecuador's relief effort.

Listen to this Segment