More than six weeks after earthquake, sisters in Ecuador continue to coordinate relief

In the main town square of Pedernales, a lone house stands badly damaged as all other surrounding buildings have been razed. (GSR photo / Sofia Bermeo)

Guayaquil, Ecuador — An apocalyptic landscape awaits travelers to the areas most affected by the earthquake that ravaged Ecuador's coast in April. Sr. Francesca Violata, an Italian missionary from the Paduan Isabelina community, witnessed the devastation first-hand when she arrived in a town on a relief trip in the weeks immediately following the disaster. "Right from the city's entrance, you get the feeling you're in a war zone," she said.

While many around the world seem to have already forgotten about this catastrophe, sisters in Ecuador are continuing to help victims. Since the earthquake, the leadership of Ecuador's Catholic women religious has played an integral role in the country's recovery.

At 6:58 p.m. on Saturday, April 16, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked the coastal provinces of Ecuador. More than 600 were killed and thousands were injured as concrete buildings crumbled. In the aftermath, thousands more have been left without homes, jobs and basic necessities. Six religious women, including one nun and five novices from the Servant Sisters of the Home of the Mother, were also killed when a staircase collapsed as they tried to escape their third-story bedrooms.

In the week following the earthquake, as the small South American country was still experiencing hundreds of aftershocks, governments and nonprofits from around the world rallied support and supplies. Anyone in Ecuador who could donate or help with the relief efforts seemed to contribute what they were able.

Although Ecuador maintained its place in the international spotlight for about a week, the energy for the relief efforts has begun to wane both internationally and domestically, as the media shift their attention to more current events. With a crippled developing economy and the high expenses that accompany disaster recovery, people must rely on outside support, much of which comes from the Catholic community of Ecuador, often through nuns and priests.

Support has also come from nonprofit organizations, foreign aid, and lay volunteers in Ecuador who have offered their time, talent or resources to help in the recovery.

Support from the Isabelina Sisters

One community making major contributions to the recovery efforts is the Italy-based Sisters of the Tertiary Franciscan Isabelinas, serving in Ecuador since 1979. Sr. Francesca Violata is the mother superior and lives with four other sisters in the developing community of Arbolito, just outside of Guayaquil.

Since the Guayas province did not suffer major damage or casualties, the Isabelinas quickly mobilized and begin coordinating relief efforts in the affected provinces of Esmeraldas and Manabí.

"I'm working with a team from the Diocese of San Jacinto of Yaguachi in Guayaquil to help organize help for the victims," said Violata. "We have organized and sent trucks with aid kits, including food, hygiene products, water, and first aid."

When visiting the devastated city of Portoviejo, she recalls feeling a chilling atmosphere of despair, with only small pockets of hope for the future of the town.

"There's a feeling of complete helplessness and incredulity," she said. "It's the sensation of being in a nightmare that you can't wake up from because of the impressing image of destruction that you see everywhere. The people are sleeping in the streets, in the park on mattresses or plastic or cardboard."

More than six weeks after the earthquake, excavators and dump trucks still dot the city as they raze buildings and clear debris. In the beachfront city of Pedernales, hundreds of homes and businesses suffered severe damage. Even the municipal building is ruined beyond repair.

A walk along the tranquil boardwalk reveals a ghost town of abandoned and broken buildings and empty lots where hotels and diners once stood. On top of the hill that overlooks the ocean, a panorama of destruction can be seen, including big houses shaken off their foundations and concrete walls and staircases that have collapsed onto the sidewalk. Brigades of citizens gather with shovels and brooms to help their community's recovery.

In the small town of Chamanga, the Buddhist relief organization Tzu Chi has set up a relief camp with rows of small canvas tents, where many of the town's residents are now living. This tiny coastal fishing community was devastated, and many of their concrete and bamboo cane houses were shaken to pieces.

Violata noted that the aftermath of the quake involves much more than physical damage.

"I've seen people traumatized, that can't seem to escape from the shock of the impact of the earthquake," she said. "They look disconnected, silent, with an enormous sadness, and they can hardly even get four words out — unresponsive and with an attitude of 'with all of this [damage] we can do nothing; we won't escape this.'"

Rosa Marquez is a grandmother who has felt this despair. She was at home in Pedernales when the earthquake struck and recalls being the last one out of her house, following her son and grandson.

"All of the walls were falling down," she described, pointing to a few posts with plastic wrapped around them. "The only thing left is the roof." Like many Ecuadorians, her family doesn't have enough money to even think about a recovery plan. "We don't have anything," she said. "Nothing, nothing, nothing."

When his family's hotel collapsed, Pedernales resident Nelson Lopez Rodriguez lost not only his family's business, but also his mother. He says his Christian faith has helped him and his family carry on with their lives, despite devastating losses.

"We are a bit sick, psychologically," he said. "I know many people who have died in my town — many people that were staying in a hotel or lodging or a home or a hostel that died, including my own family members," said Rodriguez.

Sr. Matilde Solis, a volunteer from the Panama-based Hermanas Franciscanas de Maria Inmaculada, confirms that the emotional toll has not yet faded. "There's a lot of fear. One sees that the people have this big fear that another earthquake will come and they are just filled with so much fear and terror," she said.

On the promontory hill that overlooks the Pedernales beach, a large house was shaken from its foundation. People are still working to clear the rubble and debris so they can begin the rebuilding process. Some small businesses, storefronts, carts, and diners have re-opened. (GSR photo / Sofia Bermeo)
A dump truck of donations is being distributed in canvas bags to families in the small fishing town of Chamanga, north of Pedernales. (GSR photo / Sofia Bermeo)

Cáritas in Ecuador

Helping to coordinate aid for the victims is Cáritas, under the leadership of the Isabelinas and community volunteers.

As the social arm of the Catholic church in Ecuador, Cáritas has worked with the Isabelinas to put together relief kits and aid packages. "The 'ant-work' in the different social ministries of the 24 provinces of the country is incalculable," said Violata. "Volunteers and church groups continue to participate in this national crusade, collecting, classifying, and assembling Primary Need Kits [with food, water, clothes and vital necessities] for the affected population."

Each parish community within Ecuador should organize and sponsor one of the affected communities through their recovery, according to Fr. Mauro Da Rin Fioretto, the Italian missionary priest responsible for Ecuador's Cáritas program. In a petition to the Diocese of San Jacinto of Yaguachi, he explained that the church simply doesn't have the strength and resources to resolve all of the physical, social, and economic problems caused by the quake by itself — the country's recovery will be largely dependent on the collaboration of the people of Ecuador as well.

The outlook for Ecuador's affected provinces

The social and economic aftershocks of the earthquake will continue to be felt for years as the country slowly recovers from the damages.

In the oceanfront town of Canoa, the Franciscan Sisters have stepped up to help their town recover. Sr. Carmen Isabel Faris, of the Hermanas Franciscanas Misioneras de Maria Auxiliadora, was preparing for an evening Mass in the second story of the convent when the earthquake occurred. She struggled to escape the violently shaking building and watched the walls of the neighboring church crumble, as her own house fell down behind her.

"I felt that the walls of [our] house had fallen — it was really incredible," she said. "It was unforgettable — the sound of the houses that were falling down below in the town, where they were falling, and the cries of the people and their desperation."

Since the quake, she and several other sisters have been living in tents, while they tend to their wounded community. Right now, they say the best ministry they can offer is their presence.

"It's been a job of going from tent to tent, refuge to refuge. It's being with the people that's important — listening and being with them, visiting them, [and] lifting their spirits," said Faris.

Although it has been an exhausting mission, she said that providing hope is the best way they can help. "We tell them, 'Let's keep moving forward. You're not alone. The whole world is accompanying you,' and plant that seed of hope in their hearts, which is what they need in this moment."

In the town of Chamanga, the Buddhist Relief organization Tzu Chi set up a refugee camp with canvas tents and various aid stations for the displaced families. Other people who lost their homes have set up makeshift tents to live in. (GSR photo / Sofia Bermeo)

Solis, who has been accompanying the Franciscan congregation in Canoa in their ministry of presence, is optimistic that the solidarity and hope will continue to motivate people to keep moving forward. "We all have to lift ourselves up from this reality," she said. "I think that it will all be okay. It's a process. One can hope that by tomorrow it will all be fixed, but you have to have patience too. And the people want to move forward, and there is an enthusiasm to keep going, because everyone knows they're not alone."

Solis, Faris, and Violata agree that one of the most tragic losses people have experienced, after the loss of loved ones and homes, is the loss of their jobs. Many work day-to-day with no job security or insurance, Violata explained. When the earthquake shattered their stores or places of employment, they were left without jobs and resources to make money.

"The general impact is even greater because of the economic paralysis that it has brought," she said. "All of the people who lived day to day and have not been able to recover their jobs; those that worked in Tarqui in the commercial zone of Portoviejo have been left without a daily livelihood or income."

In Canoa, Faris talked with a man who lost his diner: "He said that he had his business, making ceviche, making food, and in the earthquake, all of his plates and glasses broke; his whole kitchen was left a disaster." However, in the days following the quake, a family from the capital city of Quito came and bought him all new kitchenware and supplies to make ceviche. Faris said he told her that he has since been able to re-establish his business and even sell out all of his ceviche. He told her, "'They gave it all to me, Sister, and it's going well.'"

Offering the right kind of aid is of utmost importance, according to Violata. "In the collection center where I work, an enormous amount of water and clothes have arrived," she said. "So far, nobody has asked for clothes, and the water was only an urgent necessity in the first few days. Now the need for water is normalizing."

Other, more pressing necessities might be overlooked, she said, such as school supplies for children who were supposed to start their academic year in May but will now start in July. The best way people can help now is by sending money to organizations like Cáritas, which can effectively manage the funds based on the most urgent needs of communities.

Sr. Carmen Faris points out earthquake damage in the Canoa church to Brian Bayer. (GSR photo / Sofia Bermeo)

Life has begun to inch its way back to normalcy as people return to their hometowns and try to put their lives back together.

"There are many signs of hope," Violata said, including the continued support Ecuadorians are offering each other. "A lot of people are returning to the city after having sought refuge and peace with friends or family for a few days. You see them in the streets, on the sidewalks, not in the buildings, but in some storefronts."

The hotelier Rodriguez echoes these sentiments. "We see the future of our town of Pedernales. From what has happened, we see an oasis ahead," he said. "We see an Ecuador that is on its feet again. . . . I thank God for absolutely everything."

Faris is also grateful for God's grace as the sisters continue their ministry of recovery. "God himself gives us strength, to say to the people, 'Nothing else will happen — Let's pray to God that he has mercy on us.'"

The recovery efforts are far from over, but the church in Ecuador, with the help and leadership of its resident and missionary nuns, is dedicated to offering as much relief as possible to those affected.

"Praying [is] the first thing we do," added Solis. "We implore the grace and mercy of God because he has the power to calm these natural forces, so we go from there. We go praying and working in what we can, right? It's a job that takes time. It doesn't happen overnight."

The government raised a 150-square-meter flag on a 34-meter pole on the Pedernales beach to commemorate the 661 lives lost in the quake. (GSR photo / Sofia Bermeo)

[Brian Bayer is a freelance writer and editor for V!va Travel Guides.]