An expat recalls the March 18 earthquake: Concern from friends and for those harder hit

Apr 21, 2023 | 3 comments

By Jeremiah Reardon

After the alarming earthquake on March 18, my wife Belinda and I were deeply touched and overwhelmed by all who showed concern about our welfare, both through emails and phone calls. Ecuador was in the news again due to an earthquake. The recent one hit 6.7 on the Richter Scale, weaker in severity than the benchmark quake of 2016 which measured 7.8, resulting in over 700 deaths, primarily, along the Pacific coast, a part of Earth’s Ring of Fire. Due to March’s earthquake with an epicenter, also, near the Pacific coast, our city of Cuenca headlined the news. Dramatic photos showed the partial collapse of a downtown building which caused one death.

The number of lives lost in March’s quake is estimated at sixteen, most of them to the southeast of Guayaquil, near the epicenter. Instantaneously, social media coverage appeared on websites including Facebook and YouTube. International news programs rebroadcast these, getting the attention of our loved ones in the States.

This image on Cuenca’s Calle Sucre was broadcast around the world following the March 18 earthquake and led many to believe the city had suffered catastrophic damage. In fact, Cuenca suffered only minor damage. The situation to the west, near the epicenter, was much worse.

Around noon of that fateful day, we were sitting at Bistro Yaku having lunch. Suddenly, the table shook and dishes rattled. I looked up at the large skylight over the historic property’s interior court and saw its wide metal chandelier swing. Belinda noticed a brick partition wall sway. Typical of El Centro, the old colonial building’s exterior walls are a couple of feet wide. Indigenous workers applied a combination of organic matter including abode brick, boards, mud, straw and bamboo. Nestled in the Sierra mountains over a mile and a half high, El Centro has endured the vagaries of Mother Nature for five centuries.

A clamor arose from the restaurant’s customers. Several screamed and got out after a dash through the hallway to the street. I had never witnessed before such a fearful uproar in public.

Fear combined with disorientation kept Belinda and me frozen on our seats. We had experienced the 2016 quake while at home. We hugged together for safety under a doorframe while debating whether to make a run for the stairwell of the five story apartment building. This time, Belinda took my hand for reassurance. Feeling resigned to our fate, I appreciated her calmness. After a couple of drama-filled minutes, things settled down. We switched our table after a friend departing the restaurant had suggested, “Keep away from the glass wall.”

In an altered state of mind, we finished our meal. As we paid our bill at the counter, I noticed work in the kitchen had halted. Employees stood nearby, searching for news on their smartphones. An older expat got up from his table to join us. “My God, it looks bad!” he exclaimed when shown a photo of a downtown street. He returned to his table while shaking his head in amazement.

We left the bistro and walked to the main plaza, Parque Calderon. While pausing to give a dollar to a handicapped person, people near him had their smart phones out, eager to share images on the screens. I saw pictures of an adjacent street laden with debris from fallen building facades. One person was killed when his car was crushed, the subject of those news photos transmitted internationally. In the next block, we watched an ambulance with its emergency lights flashing drive past. Other emergency vehicles were parked in surrounding streets.

At home, we realized that our apartment in the fifteen-year-old building must have shaken considerably. Drawers had come out from one dresser and a quarter inch thick glass shelf in the guestroom bath had come loose from its fittings. Broken glass was all around. On its fall, the shelf had chipped an edge off the porcelain sink. In the hallway shower, shampoo and conditioner bottles had tipped from the windowsill and onto the tile floor. Adjacent to our fifth-floor elevator is a new crack in the glass wall at the broad curve which caps the three-story-view from the staircase.

I don’t know if it made any difference in the severity of the quake, but the night before, just past midnight, while lying in bed (the best place to sense earth tremors) I felt mild ones of different intensity over a span of several minutes; nothing to cause alarm. With Belinda asleep, I hoped they wouldn’t awaken her. Perhaps these five-minute spaced spasms had served as a kind of relief valve to drain off energy stored in the earth’s crust which later erupted violently.

Belinda got off an email of concern to several Cuenca friends. One friend reported, “We had gone to Plaza del Otorongo to take our pet to the vet. I was in the car and the earthquake felt strong. Everything in the house is fine and so are we.” Another friend responded, “Nothing broke here but stress cracks are becoming much wider now. Wow!  This entire building felt like it was “spinning”!!!!  I am not kidding!!!”

On the following Monday, when I arrived for my guitar-making workshop, the first thing on Maestro Juan’s mind was the quake. That weekend, he had visited his hometown, San Bartolome, a guitar craft community twenty-five miles to the east. “I felt fear, standing outside with all the shaking going on,” he admitted. When our cleaning lady came on Tuesday, she told us that her grandmother’s adobe home in the Yunguilla Valley hills to the east of Santa Isabel had collapsed. I asked whether the government would help her. She replied, “I don’t know.”

Cuenca is geologically safe, tucked into the Andean sierra at a high altitude. We are relatively safe in buildings that are very old. Our regions has no tsunamis, hurricanes or tornados and no ice storms. Unfortunately, nearby communities have been hit with landslides, triggered in part by the earthquake, resulting in the loss of lives. In Alausi to the north, some families have gone missing.

Back in April 2016, Ecuadorians rallied in support of destitute coastal communities. Local businesses accepted donations, cross country truck deliveries were made by private citizens, and local hospital personnel volunteered to work on the coast, all contributing to the country’s rapid response. My hope for the victims of these recent tragedies is that a similar response assists them along with emergency funding by the government to rebuild their communities as well as their lives.

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