Steven Giddings has been a volunteer relief worker at dozens of natural disasters during his life. He was on the scene following major earthquakes in Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, and Chile. He has delivered food and supplies in Louisiana, Florida, Texas and North Carolina in the aftermath of hurricanes. He has helped clean and repair houses along the Mississippi River following major floods.
Yesterday, he was in Muisne on Ecuador’s northern coast, handing out water and food with a team organized by Ecuador’s Ministry of Health. “I thought my days of disaster work were over,” said Giddings, a former school teacher from Rome, New York who lives today near Salinas. “But when you’ve spent as many years as I have doing this kind of work, you’re always ready to serve when the need arises. They can use me here today and I’m glad to help.
Giddings, who has volunteered with the International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and World Vision says the scene on Ecuador’s coast reminds him of Haiti after the 2010 quake, and a little of South Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
“This earthquake was much stronger than the Haiti quake but thankfully the population density is not as great,” he said. “In Haiti, you were seeing one pancaked building after another and you knew there were dead people in all of them. You knew because you could smell it. Here, there are fewer total collapses, probably because they used rebar in construction, but there are still a lot of them down. We’re beginning to smell the bodies.”
As in Haiti, what affects Giddings the most, is the anguish of survivors who can’t find family members and friends. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking and all I can do is offer hugs. Some of these folks don’t know where their children or husbands or wives are. Others know and can point to a pile of rubble.”
The scene brings back memories of the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. “You see so many people with blank faces, sitting in front of what was once their homes, wondering what they do next,” he says.
Giddings says he is impressed with Ecuador’s quick response to the earthquake. “The relief work was organized quickly and efficiently. The government is doing a very good job under bad conditions,” he said. “In Haiti, I saw what happens when this doesn’t happen.”
Government services were on the scene within hours, Giddings says, and many are working alongside volunteer emergency crews and health workers. “The supplies and volunteers are pouring in and the people in charge are doing a pretty good job of managing it all,” he says. “Coordinating disaster relief can be almost as big a job as helping the survivors. A big issue in this work is avoiding what we call the disaster of disaster relief, when there’s a free-for-all of people wanting to help and supplies piling up without any management.”
Giddings adds: “This is a terrible, terrible disaster, but Ecuador is handling it the right way. We’ll make it through this one and the country will be the stronger for it.”