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Depth of morning earthquake minimizes damage and injuries, former U.S. geologist says

The first official reports from Friday’s early morning 7.5 magnitude earthquake in Morona Santiago Province indicate little major damage but widespread minor damage. Risk management officials and local emergency workers say only two injuries had been reported by mid-morning.

An hour after the earthquake, some Macas residents continue to sit outside as aftershocks continued in the area. (El Universo)

According to the officials, most of the damage occurred within houses, offices, schools and stores, as dishes, electronics and merchandise was knocked from cabinets and shelves. “We have many reports of heavy damage within homes in several communities west of the epicenter but, fortunately, only three people were hurt that we are aware of,” a risk management official reported on Twitter. “We have reports, of course, of hundreds of broken windows.”

Risk management offices in Riobamba and Ambato say they are still collecting damage reports and will provide more information later Friday. “There is significant damage but most of it appears to be minor in nature,” an official in Riobamba said.

The fire department in Macas reported that a number of dilapidated structures collapsed during the quake but none were inhabited.

Northeast of Cuenca, closer to the epicenter, San Bartolome and Sigsig reported fallen walls and partially collapsed building facades, as well as damage to household belongings such as dishes, televisions and computers.

“This was a major earthquake but we are lucky that it happened at depth,” says Larry Edenfield, a Cuenca expat and former geologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGA). “I was awake when it happened and knew from how long the shaking lasted that it was a big one. This will probably rank in the top 10 biggest earthquakes of the year but there were several mitigating factors, including the depth, that kept it from being catastrophic.”

Although Friday morning’s earthquake was only three-tenths of a point less magnitude than the deadly 2016 coastal earthquake, 7.5 magnitude versus 7.8, Edenfield says the coastal quake was far more damaging for several reasons. “It’s easy to make comparisons but there are important differences,” he says. “Yes, there is only a fraction of a point of magnitude difference but that difference meant the coastal quake was twice as powerful as this morning’s even before you consider the depth, which was about 12 miles versus 85, which is a function of the location of the tectonic plates.”

Before he moved to Ecuador 10 years ago, Edenfield spent weeks researching the seismic history of Ecuador. “At first I was interested in living on the coast but, from my studies, found out that it is one of the most active seismic areas on earth. This was borne out, of course, in 2016.”

Edenfield said his research steered him to Cuenca and the southern Andes were the earthquake risk is lower.

According to Edenfield, the 5.5 magnitude earthquake that occurred 23 minutes after the Morona Santiago temblor was unrelated. “It was a strange coincidence that they happened so close together but the activity was on different faults,” he says. “Like everyone else who was awake at the time, I assumed it was an aftershock from the first one but it wasn’t.”