Although reports of damage and injuries continue to come in, Ecuador’s Secretariat of Risk Management (SNGR) says Friday morning’s 7.5 magnitude earthquake in Morona Santiago Province could have been far worse.
“This was a huge earthquake that could have caused catastrophic damage if it had occurred in a populated area,” SNGR said in statement Friday night. “We are very, very lucky.”
The earthquake was the largest yet recorded in the world in 2019. On average, only two or three magnitude 7.5 or greater earthquakes are recorded each year.
The 5:17 a.m. earthquake was followed within minutes by a 6.1 magnitude aftershock and an unrelated 5.5 magnitude quake near Guayaquil.
According to SNGR, five people were injured in the earthquake, five in Morona Santiago Province and another in Azuay Province, east of Cuenca. At least 100 structures collapsed in a three-province area east and south of the earthquake, most of them of “inferior construction quality,” SNGR says. Two houses suffered extensive damage near Gualaceo, forcing the residents to seek shelter in a nearby church.
In addition to the fallen buildings, hundreds of other structures suffered structural damage, broken windows and cracked facades, and SNGR says it will be weeks before it can make a full damage assessment. “We do not underestimate the damage, which is extensive and affects thousands of homes, schools, hospitals and public facilities,” a SNGR spokesman said. “But it could have been much worse.”
SNGR says it is still attempting to make contact with several mostly indigenous communities near the quake epicenter.
President Lenin Moreno toured the stricken area Friday afternoon, emphasizing the “the great fortune that we avoided a tragedy today.” He promised the government’s resources in assisting those who suffered losses.
The relatively light damage toll was the result of two factors, according to Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute. “First, the epicenter was 140 kilometers deep and second, the earthquake occurred in a very remote area,” said institute seismologist Mónica Segovia.
After first reporting the epicenter location as about 12 kilometers from Macas, the institute said it was actually 70 kilometers to the east, near the village of Chichirata on the Peruvian border. “The damage would have been far more severe if it had happened closer to Macas and Puyo,” Segovia said.