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Rescue goes slowly in Ecuador after 7.8 quake; death toll tops 400, expected to rise further

Rescue goes slowly in Ecuador after 7.8 quake; death toll tops 400, expected to rise further
A mourner in Portoviejo is revived with splashes of water before family members head to a nearby cemetery to bury loved ones who were killed in the magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Ecuador. (Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press)

As dawn broke Monday over this devastated city, Yandry Galarza stood vigil in front of what was left of the Super Exito clothing store, a once thriving retail hub now reduced to a silent pile of rubble. She said she was hoping against hope her sister Kenia, who was trapped inside, might still be alive.

"As soon as the earthquake hit Saturday night, I ran over from the supermarket where I work to see my sister, but her building was already destroyed," Galarza said, eyeing the slanted ruins of the second floor where her sister sold shoes. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake caused the third floor to collapse on top of her.

Yandry knows the odds of finding Kenia alive are slim. In fact, she and her three siblings talked about how they were going to pay for their sister's funeral even as they watched rescuers pick carefully through the rubble in efforts to reach her.

"Insurance only covers $1,200 for the viewing and burial," said Yandry Galarza, who spoke as if in a daze. She had stayed up all of Saturday night and spent all of Sunday in front of the store. "But first we have to determine where she is, whether she is alive or not."

"We've accounted for everyone in the family but her," she added.

Many in this city and others devastated by the quake are struggling with similar tragedies. Although the official death count from the earthquake was raised on Monday to 413 nationwide, with more than 2,500 injured, the toll is expected to go much higher as victims are pulled from the collapsed buildings.

Coastal Manabi, of which Portoviejo is the capital, was the worst-hit province, with at least 200 deaths, said Ricardo Peñaherrera of Ecuador's national emergency management office, in comments to CNN. Manta and Pedernales, two other big Manabi cities, also suffered extensive damage.

Guayaquil, whose 3 million people make it the country's most populous city, suffered extensive damage to roads, with several bridges and one tunnel closed.

Among the dead in Saturday's quake was at least one American, although the U.S. Embassy in Quito did not identify the victim. The northern coastal states that bore the brunt of the damage include beaches and surf spots that are popular with foreign tourists, as well as with Ecuadorean vacationers.

Several coastal cities, including Pedernales and Manta, were still without drinking water or electricity on Monday evening. The logistics of delivering aid was complicated by the closure of at least 10 roads because of damage from the quake, the most powerful to strike Ecuador since the 1970s.

Officials expressed fears that high temperatures in this tropical region could undermine sanitation as bodies buried under debris begin to decompose.

But rescuers were cheered by television images early Monday of three quake survivors being pulled from a ruined shopping center in Manta, the country's second-largest port after Guayaquil, 32 hours after the quake struck, according to the Associated Press.

Ecuador's Congress published a list of needed items, including tents, mattresses, canned food and mosquito nets. Portoviejo's largest stadium, the Sports Federation Coliseum, and several parks were converted into temporary shelters and storage and distribution centers for emergency supplies.

International aid agencies and neighboring countries, including Colombia, Venezuela, Chile and Peru, as well as Mexico, pledged to send resources and personnel to aid in rescue and recovery efforts. The European Union pledged about $1.1 million to an aid fund. Ecuadorean emigre communities in the United States, including Chicago, began organizing donation drives to send relief supplies.

President Rafael Correa toured some of the damaged areas, including Portoviejo, on Monday and later called on Ecuadoreans to unify behind recovery efforts. Reconstruction will cost "billions of dollars" and the negative economic effect of the disaster could be "huge," Correa said.

Relatively dependent on crude oil exports, Ecuador's economy was expected to register barely any growth this year because of the drop in global oil prices.

Rescue efforts are proceeding slowly in Portoviejo, an administrative and fishing industry center, partly because the challenge is so enormous. Portoviejo police Sgt. Yandry Mero said half of the city's buildings have either collapsed or been heavily damaged.

Although the government began publishing lists of quake victims, there has been no official count yet of how many victims are, like Kenia, still missing.

Heavy equipment has to be used carefully to avoid endangering victims who still may be alive in the ruins, said Alexis Gutierrez, a Venezuelan firefighter who arrived in Portoviejo on Sunday to help with rescue operations. Several neighboring countries have offered rescue supplies and personnel.

A walk through Portoviejo underscores the depth of the challenge ahead. Ruins block many streets and power lines are down. Looting is widespread, with drugstores, supermarkets and hardware stores the primary targets.

With no running water or electricity, desperate residents rushed trucks loaded with relief supplies, including bottled water, canned tuna and biscuits.

After the jail partially collapsed, 100 prisoners escaped, and as of Monday afternoon, only 30 had turned themselves in. A Chevrolet dealer lost 20 cars when the force of the quake caused them to roll into the Portoviejo River.

At every corner, survivors told stories of personal tragedy similar to Yandry Galarza's. At the San Gregorio pharmacy, near the Super Exito, manager Patricio Domo told of how the earthquake dealt death in an instant to those in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"A lady was asking me for a large can of powdered milk, I told her it would cost $35, and just as she was handing me the money, the earthquake hit," Domo recalled. "I told her to run and tried to push her to protect her but it was too late. A wall collapsed right on top of her, crushing her head. She died."

Nearby, Gutierrez, the Venezuelan firefighter, was picking through ruins of the Mariner shoe store, once the ground floor of a three-story building now reduced to a pile of concrete and twisted steel.

"At least six families lived here," Gutierrez said, referring to the upper floors. "The building collapsed. This is all that's left. People are sleeping outside because they are afraid of aftershocks."

Many who survived have lost all their belongings. At 7 a.m. Monday, seamstress Fatima Cevallos stood outside the ruins of the house where her family had lived since 1965. All that was left standing were some columns that once supported a veranda. The house's outside walls had disappeared.

Beside Cevallos, her 98-year-old father was sound asleep, his head resting on a pillow on the bare sidewalk.

"Where are we going to go? This is our only home. All we can do is sweep up the rubbish because there is no money to repair anything," Cevallos said.

As devastating as the Ecuadorean quake is proving, University of Michigan geophysicist Jeroen Ritsema said in a telephone interview that the impacts of the magnitude 7.8 quake were not unusual.

"They happen once or maybe twice a year in that area. Ecuador is close to the boundary of two major colliding tectonic plates. The entire Pacific coast of South America is affected by this collision," Ritsema said, referring to similarly devastating quakes that have struck Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Mexico.

"Is there anything people can do? Yes, those who live in places like Ecuador or Japan can prepare. Because it can happen without much warning."

Special correspondents Viteri and Kraul reported from Portoviejo and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.

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