World leaders from the Vatican to Washington offered support to Ecuador as casualties mounted following one of the strongest earthquakes to strike the South American country in decades.

By Sunday evening, the number of dead had climbed to at least 272, from 77 earlier in the day. At least 2,527 were injured, the government said. President Rafael Correa flew to the epicenter in hard-hit Manabi province after cutting short a trip to Rome, for a conference at the Vatican, in the aftermath of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake.
“Thanks to the whole world for solidarity,” the president tweeted earlier Sunday. “Our endless love to the families of the fallen,” he said on an earlier post.

Correa called the quake the worst tragedy that the country had suffered in almost seven decades. “Today we are more unified than ever, there is more solidarity than ever, today we are all Ecuador,” Correa said on Twitter.

The nation’s geophysical institute said on its web page that the quake was centered about 170 kilometers (106 miles) west-northwest of the capital, Quito. The institute reported “considerable damage” and said more than 36 aftershocks, one measuring 5 on the Richter scale, had followed.

As houses in Quito shook and power went off briefly, residents evacuated and stood outside while waiting for the temblor, which lasted about three minutes, to stop. Some coastal towns were devastated by the quake, the government said, with victims trapped in collapsed homes and buildings. Roads and bridges were also affected, complicating access to the hardest-hit areas.

Vice President Jorge Glas said on Twitter Sunday evening that he would spend the night in Pedernales, in the Manabi province, working with security, health and rescue teams. The government deployed 10,000 troops to the region and the nation’s risk management agency said that 10,000 bottles of water would be shipped to some of the affected areas in the Manabi province, along with 7,668 sleeping kits and food for 3,000.

“We stand by the people of Ecuador in this difficult time and are ready to assist in any way we can,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in an e-mail.

State oil company PetroEcuador said Sunday that it was slowly restarting operations after making initial safety inspections. The company said Sunday that while the La Libertad and Shushufindi refineries were working normally, installations in the Esmeraldas refinery were still being evaluated.

The oil ministry reported earlier that there was no damage to strategic infrastructure projects, although some operations were suspended for safety. Potentially complicating the nation’s economic recovery, crude prices tumbled by the most in two months after talks in Doha among major global producers to freeze output ended without an agreement.

Ecuador, an OPEC member, produced 547,000 barrels of crude per day in March, according to data from the Vienna-based organization. The International Monetary Fund, which earlier Sunday said it stands ready to help Ecuador as needed, expects the economy to contract 4.5 percent this year.

Ecuador’s Finance Ministry has $300 million in emergency funds and will also use contingent financing to help pay for reconstruction, the government said in a statement published in the president’s official gazette.

–With assistance from Nour Al Ali, Daniel Cancel, Isabella Cota and Ros Krasny.


[Editor’s note: According to catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide, the epicenter of Saturday night’s earthquake in Equador was located on a relatively sparsely populated part of the Ecuadoran coast near the northern town of Muisne, although damage was reported many miles away.

“Roads have been made impassible by large cracks, and power and communications are out in the affected area. It will take some time before the extent and degree of damage from the current event are fully known,” said a statement issued by Boston-based AIR.

Seismic hazard in Ecuador is driven primarily by the Nazca subduction zone, located just offshore of western South America, said AIR.

Several earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have affected Ecuador since 1900, including a M7.1 earthquake that caused considerable damage in Manabi province in 1998. That earthquake damaged many engineered mid-rise and high-rise buildings in coastal city Bahia de Caraquez, said AIR.

“Fully 71 percent of the city’s reinforced concrete buildings suffered some degree of damage, and 17 percent of these buildings collapsed or were damaged beyond repair. In the town of Canoa, 60 percent of structures were damaged,” the modeling firm continued.

According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), Saturday’s megathrust earthquake was the result of shallow thrust faulting on or near the plate boundary between the Nazca and Pacific plates, AIR confirmed, explaining that the Nazca plate is subducting eastward beneath the South America plate at a velocity of 61 millimeters (2.40 inches) per year.

The subduction off the west coast of South America has led to uplift of the Andes mountain range and has produced some of the largest earthquakes in the world, including the largest earthquake on record, the 1960 M 9.5 earthquake in southern Chile, the company explained.

Building Types

Commercial buildings are primarily of masonry, concrete, or steel construction. Commercial buildings and mid-to-high rise apartment buildings are typically made of reinforced concrete construction with shear walls, or reinforced masonry construction. Industrial buildings in Ecuador are typically of steel or light metal construction.

While commercial and industrial buildings are generally constructed according to stricter standards than residential structures, building code enforcement varies within and across Ecuador, AIR said, noting that the seismic performance of buildings in Ecuador is greatly influenced by local construction practices.

“Building damageability is often exacerbated by poor workmanship, inadequate materials, and a lack of building code enforcement,” AIR continued.

While confined and reinforced masonry are very common in typical low rise residential properties, reinforced concrete, in particular with shear walls, is the dominant construction type used for mid- and high-rise residential buildings in urban areas.

In rural areas, adobe construction is a common construction type for homes, which are the most vulnerable to collapse, said AIR.

Source: AIR Worldwide