Ecuador earthquake destruction could force relocation of towns, UNICEF says

The devastation from the April 16 earthquake in Ecuador is so great that some communities will likely need to "start from new," the UNICEF representative in that country told CBC News.

UN could soon announce worldwide appeal for millions to fund relief efforts

'We're still going strong ... in terms of search and rescue,' Nicolas Verdy of the Canadian Red Cross says. 'Time is running out.' (Henry Romero/Reuters)

The devastation from Saturday's earthquake in Ecuador, with a death toll of 587 so far, is so great that some communities will likely need to "start from new," the UNICEF representative in that country says. 

"There are one or two locations where the government's contemplating relocating towns ... because of the level of destruction," Grant Leaity told CBC News on Wednesday evening.

Several days after the disaster, people desperately continue to dig through rubble in the hopes of finding survivors, as aid workers try to assess the enormous humanitarian consequences of the largest quake Ecuador had seen in decades.

"We're still going strong, and everybody is, in terms of search and rescue," Nicolas Verdy of the Canadian Red Cross told CBC News on Wednesday. "We have full teams going through the rubble, being helped by the military, by the government."

People were looking through debris as rescue efforts continued in Pedernales, Ecuador, on Wednesday. (Guillermo Granja/Reuters)

"Obviously time is running out so they're moving as quick as they can," he said.

Verdy, who lives in Ottawa, manages international emergency operations for the Canadian Red Cross and has been travelling to hard-hit areas on Ecuador's Pacific coast since he arrived on Monday.

But it's hard to get "a full picture or a clear picture of the needs," he said, as blocked roads are impeding access to some communities.

UN appeal expected 

Even a partially-completed picture, however, shows that the humanitarian response required is enormous. In addition to homes, critical infrastructure like hospitals and schools were damaged, or in some cases, completely destroyed. 

The United Nations is expected soon to announce a global appeal for around $70 million US ($88 million Cdn) to fund relief efforts in Ecuador over the next three months, Leaity told CBC News.

Hundreds of Ecuadorian Red Cross volunteers mobilized in the first 24 hours following the earthquake, Verdy said. 

In addition to search and rescue efforts, the agency is focused on providing first aid and medical treatment to the thousands of people injured, he said, as well as "psychosocial support."  

UNICEF is still trying to determine how many children have been affected by the Ecuador earthquake, but estimates it's more than 150,000. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

"There's a lot of people that are traumatized," Verdy said. "People are sleeping outside. People are scared. There's a lot of aftershocks."

Both the Red Cross and UNICEF are also providing shelter and clean water, deploying supplies that were already pre-positioned in the region, with more coming from international warehouses.

Zika, dengue among illness concerns

Other critical items, they say, are mosquito nets to protect people while they're sleeping outside or in shelters — particularly as Ecuador battles Zika virus.

It's "a major concern," Leaity said, noting that the same mosquito that carries Zika virus also causes dengue fever. 

After the initial life-saving needs are met, UNICEF and other agencies will try to restore as much normalcy as possible for children, partly by working with the Ecuadorian government to get them back to school within weeks or months, Leaity said. 

But rebuilding in Ecuador will be a long process, both aid agencies say. 

"We're going to see people in need not just for the next coming weeks but the next coming months," Verdy said. "For some people, it's going to be for the next coming years."

'Wake-up call' for construction standards

The earthquake's epicentre "was very close to the poorer parts of the coast," Leaity said.

That contributed to the severity of the destruction in some areas, aid agencies say.  

"The poorer people have less solid houses so their houses tend to get destroyed first," Verdy said. 

A lot of the houses were "built on very poor ground soil quality," Leaity said, adding that "this earthquake is a wake-up call" for construction standards.  

Both agencies say it's essential to adopt the principle of "build back better" in helping Ecuador rebuild.  

If people's homes are built to appropriate standards, "the next time there's an earthquake they might not lose everything," Verdy said. "It might save their lives."    


Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.


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