Catholic agencies begin work of rebuilding after Ecuador quake

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jose Jacome, EPA, Reuters


QUITO, Ecuador (CNS) — Catholic
agencies are beginning to build temporary shelters for thousands of
families in Ecuador made homeless by the South American country’s worst natural
disaster in nearly seven decades.

As the death toll continues to
climb following a magnitude-7.8 earthquake, which struck near the town of Muisne
on the Pacific Coast April 16, officials are assessing the scope of the damage
and working to provide humanitarian aid to the estimated 350,000 people who
were affected, including 26,000 who were left without homes. Church
organizations have been distributing food, drinking water and mattresses, while
trying to establish contact with small communities that were cut off when roads
and telephone lines were destroyed.

“We’re now up to 696 deaths
and you can tell the psychosocial impact is serious,” said Thomas Hollywood,
director of Catholic Relief Services in South America. “They’re trying to
figure out what to do next. But the population is shell-shocked.”

Hollywood said CRS is working in
nine communities to distribute 10,000 tarps that will be used with local
materials to construct temporary shelters. It is also providing psychosocial
services and doling out hygiene kits to communities that have lost access to
potable water, raising concerns about the spread of diseases like cholera.

“They’re going to the river
for drinking water,” he said. “We’re concerned about the spread of
vectors, so we’re trying to get ahead of it.”

CRS’ initial response to the
disaster comes as the Catholic Church and Ecuadorean government continue to try
to reach small, rural communities where infrastructure was destroyed. Ecuadorean
President Rafael Correa estimated last week that the disaster caused at least
$3 billion in damage.

U.N. representatives and foreign
ambassadors, including U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador Todd Chapman, were scheduled
to visit affected areas April 26. The U.S. is providing more than $1 million in
assistance initially, the State Department said. The U.N. has asked donors to
pledge nearly $73 million for disaster relief in the next three months.

The destruction is spread across
a large swath that includes some of the poorest provinces in Ecuador, a country
of 16.4 million where 22.5 percent of the population is impoverished, according
to the World Bank.

Complicating matters, the El Nino
weather pattern is bringing more rainfall than normal, according to the
Guayaquil, Ecuador-based International Research Center on El Nino Phenomenon.
That has left hillsides vulnerable to mudslides, putting at risk the precarious
housing in which some Ecuadoreans live.

“It’s really three issues
we’re trying to address: Extreme poverty, the earthquake and the effects of El
Nino,” Hollywood said.

Alfredo de la Fuente, who
represents Caritas in Portoviejo, a city of 250,000 that Correa visited after the quake, said rural areas are in need of more assistance.

“It’s these small
communities that right now need our solidarity,” he said in a statement on the
Caritas Ecuador website. “We need nonperishable food and mattresses,
particularly. Reconstruction of the houses that were affected will come later.”

Meanwhile, thousands of families
continue to sleep outside, away from any structures, as aftershocks kept
residents on edge, said Father Walter Coronel, a priest in the Archdiocese of

“People are terrified, and
we cannot provide all the assistance that they need,” Father Coronel said.
“There are some rural communities that we have no way to access, so we
have no idea what is going on there.”

Father Coronel said the
archdiocese is providing food, mattresses, medicines and other essentials, but
it has limited capacity.

“We have small staffs and
the needs are way beyond what we can provide,” he said. “In many
areas, the church buildings have also been damaged.”

Kevin Day, grants specialist in
the U.S. bishops’ office on the church in Latin America, said the Archdiocese
of Portoviejo estimated $10 million in damages to church properties, including
schools, convents and churches themselves.

“Based on experiences in
other countries after earthquakes, I think it will be substantially more
expensive than that,” he said. “We’re trying to manage expectations
about how much this will cost and how long it will take. It will be a good 24
months before the rebuilding can take place.”

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