Image: Local residents line up to receive food in Manta, after an earthquake struck off Ecuador’s Pacific coast, April 21, 2016. REUTERS/Henry Romero
By Ana Isabel Martinez and Julia Symmes Cobb
SAN JACINTO/COJIMIES, Ecuador (Reuters) – Survivors of an earthquake that killed 570 people and shattered Ecuador’s coast clamored for food, water and medicine on Thursday as aid eluded remote parts of the disaster zone.
President Rafael Correa’s socialist government, facing a mammoth rebuilding task at a time of greatly reduced oil revenues in the OPEC nation, said there was no lack of supplies, just problems with distribution that’should be quickly resolved.
“We’re trying to survive. We need food,” said Galo Garcia, a 65-year-old lawyer as he waited in line for water from a truck in beachside village of San Jacinto. “There’s nothing in the shops. We’re eating the vegetables we grow.”
A crowd nearby chanted, “We want food.”
The government quickly moved supplies to the main towns and set up shelters for more than 25,000 people in soccer stadiums and airports, but shattered roads have impeded the operation.
On streets near Pedernales, one of the worst-hit towns, children from rural areas held signs begging for food. Many people left villages to seek help, and those who stayed behind felt the pinch.
“All of us here have been marginalized. The others are receiving things, but we’re not,” said Darwin Gachila, 33, as he cradled his baby daughter, flanked by his wife and two other children in the small village of Cojimies.
A government official at a food storage point outside the town of Pedernales asked a supplicant, Jose Gregorio Basulor, 55, to stay calm. “I can be patient but not the children!” he shouted back. “They are crying.”
Interior Minister Jose Serrano, speaking from an aid convoy nearby, stressed that the government was focusing on house-by-house distribution to ensure no one was overlooked.
Correa has said Ecuador would temporarily increase some taxes, offer assets for sale and possibly issue bonds abroad to fund reconstruction after Saturday’s 7.8 magnitude quake.
He has estimated damage at $2 billion to $3 billion.
A raft of temporary tax increases should raise between $650 million and $1 billion, the government said on Thursday, stressing that those in areas hit by the quake would be exempt.
Lower oil revenue had already left the country of 16 million people facing near-zero growth and lower investment.
Ecuador’s worst earthquake in nearly seven decades also injured 7,000 people, left 155 missing and damaged close to 2,000 buildings, according to the government. Scores of foreign aid workers and experts have arrived and 14,000 security personnel were keeping order, with only sporadic looting.
“There are rumors there’s a shortage of water,” Correa said late on Wednesday, responding to complaints about the aid operation. “We have plenty of water. The problem is distribution,” he said.
Correa said the death toll would have been lower had Ecuadoreans respected stricter building regulations that were introduced after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 300,000 people.
Ecuadoreans had a mixed reaction to tax increases and another measure to don’te one day’s salary to help relief work.
“Nobody likes paying taxes because even before the earthquake things were difficult,” said student Isaac Andrade, 27, in the city of Guayaquil. “But I think it’s consistent with the spirit of solidarity.”
The government appealed for tourists to keep coming to fuel an industry that generated $1.7 billion last year. But visitors may be put off by health warnings from the quake zone.
One charity, CARE International, said there was an immediate threat of mosquito-borne diseases including the Zika virus and dengue fever.
“There is a lot of stagnant water which greatly increases the number of breeding sit’s for mosquitoes,” said Lucy Harman, emergency team leader in Ecuador for CARE, which was supplying water purification tablets and temporary water tanks.
Rescuers were using face masks against the smell of decomposing bodies, while soldiers were vaccinated before being deployed into quake-hit areas.
The United Nations and partners were to launch an appeal on Friday to help an estimated 350,000 people in need of aid.
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Diego Ore in Quito, Yuri Garcia in Guayaquil, Magdalena Mis in London; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Bill Trott, Toni Reinhold)
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