On Saturday night April 16, I sat in a restaurant in Loja, Ecuador, a peaceful city in the southern Andes. I was nursing a hangover with a plate piled up with rich steak, mote and a chilled beer, at the ready to start another drunken night.
Then my head was thrown from side to side and a wobble rose up through my stomach and into my throat. I was ready to keel over when I realized while looking that frantic Spanish had claimed the air in the restaurant and panic had pulled people to their feet and scrambling for the exit.
I’d experienced a tremor, not a big deal, no beer was spilt. I found the moment quite exciting in fact. Though had I known what happened a few hundred miles away on the coast I would not have so easily joked while pushing through the crowd to rescue my steak from going cold.
A 7.8 earthquake had struck the northwestern Ecuadorian coast somewhere between the towns of Muisne and Pedernales, leaving hundreds dead, many injured and thousands missing.
The threat of a tsunami caused many to flee the cities in want of higher ground while many, including governmental and international organizations, made their way to the worst affected areas with aid.
This left the streets in utter chaos as traumatic heartbreak now ruled the once tranquil seaside dwellings. It wasn’t long before radio messages gave cry to the horrors of bodies littering the streets, and outbreaks of murder and looting. The walls of one prison fell, allowing over 150 criminals to run free into the surrounding countryside.
After a day had passed the situation had only grown worse. The messages changed from calls for doctors and medicine to the need for psychologists, formaldehyde and coffins.
Many volunteers had willingly dropped everything and headed straight in, only to fall victim to roadside robberies, shootings and diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and zika.
Then this notice calling for volunteers came my way. The opening paragraph, translated:
Minimum Volunteer Profile:
Knowing first aid, has valor and courage to face situations where seeing corpses of humans and animals will be a normal state of things and where putrefaction in many will be advanced. You must also be prepared to see people die because they cannot be met on time.
As an English teacher, I doubted that the thousands of newly homeless would be interested in a lesson on the correct use of auxiliary verbs. But two friends had already committed to going, and so I decided that an extra pair of hands could only be useful, as long as they belonged to a body well soaked in insect repellent.
We gathered items from the list which was sent out to all would-be helpers. This included gas masks, helmets, food and water for four days and equipment to enable the self-management of all waste. For the latter a shovel and much toilet paper.
We left for Guayaquil and arrived at night, not far south of the devastation zone. We only managed an hour’s sleep before hitching a ride north with a group of nurses.
As we gained our way north, rifts began to appear in the roads. Cracks had slithered their way up buildings and small huts stood roofless. Canoa was one of the worst hit places with the death toll at 50. The roads were blocked off for evacuation, and lined with desperate children waving red shirts on sticks. Others had signs calling for water, food, help.
We made base in the town of Jama. No aid had reached Jama yet, and we arrived through a cloud of lingering dust. I was struck by the revealed interior of a person’s home. I saw a wall missing from a pink bedroom which had spilled toys into the rubble below, a kitchen with family photos above the sink, plates set at the family table.
I walked into the ruins of one building to find children’s party hats scattered and crushed all over the floor. Thirty-eight had died there.
We took up residence in a crumbling health center as thousands of boxes of donations came in. Many of these boxes came with written messages: “Strength brothers, we are with you.” Each wall had been scribbled upon as to whether it was at risk of falling in the event of an aftershock.
We spent our first day sorting medical alcohol and plasma into boxes while people ran in and out with supplies. Soldiers left with shelter materials and injured people started coming in. It seemed most volunteers had no plan beyond acquiring a car, filling it with food and water and taking off with mud-kicking dust.
That night we were at the epicenter of an aftershock which rocked the land with a magnitude of 6.1. People fled the health center screaming as we stood outside waiting to see what would fall. Electricity pylons waved while stray dogs squealed, terrified with confusion. Luckily nothing fell. After a few minutes an ambulance came rushing in.
There was only one working shower to relieve us from all that equatorial sweat, and it was situated on the second floor in a wing of the building deemed unsafe. We were told not to be in there for longer than two minutes. One of my companions actually had the misfortune of being caught in the shower during another aftershock and was seen running through the corridors soaking wet and scrambling for his trousers.
The next day we managed to get a ride to nearby Don Juan. We were told the people there needed help to build shelters but when we arrived we found that most of the residents had fled up into the surrounding hills in fear of a tsunami.
We helped one family who had chosen to build a large, makeshift tent out of canes and plastic sheets. Their mattresses were wet and they seemed to have little more than water and fruit, but they were grateful and quick to smile. In a quiet moment the head of the family pointed to his old house, or where it was. It was flat. He told me his father had died when the roof collapsed on top of him.
We found a rhythm over the next few days. We would ask whichever jeep seemed to be going somewhere to take us with them. This is how we found ourselves building a school in central Jama among 20 UN refugee tents, walking around slums giving out food and mosquito repellent and doing whatever else was asked.
We saw many nations. The Cubans had come – the same force who landed in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake. I heard Turkish. A group of North Carolina Baptists wandered from tent to tent, administering doses of God. We were having a meager lunch of tuna and bread when a Palestinian convoy sped past on its way to Pedernales, the place worst hit.
We heard there probably wouldn’t be any work for us in Pedernales. As the epicenter of the larger quake and reasonably accessible by road, it was where most of the aid organizations went first. The roadsides were thick with makeshift housing and there were now hundreds of children waving red shirts.
The seaside town was said to be 60% destroyed. While making our way around in the back of a pickup, this seemed accurate. We stopped outside the stadium where news footage had shown dead bodies heaped atop one another and people with nowhere else to go sleeping around them.
We came across an army medical team who were among the first to arrive on the morning after the earthquake.
“The town was completely destroyed and everybody needed everything,” Captain Santiago Palva told me. “Many aid groups have been here but already their numbers are rapidly decreasing. The rural areas are receiving no real help at all and the children there are terrified, depressed and hopeless. There have been severe outbreaks due to so much stagnant water. We are afraid that dengue, zika and other diseases could turn into a serious epidemic if repellent and mosquito nets do not arrive. We fear they won’t.”
He went on to talk about other diseases such as a fungus of the skin from wearing only damp clothes. This was of particular interest to me as I had contracted it myself. After days in the sun and without access to dry clothes, patches of my skin came out in what I can only describe as aggressive bark-like mold. I am still being treated.
For our final day we stopped by El Matal, one of the slums where we gave out supplies.
“The night it happened was horrible, everything started to shake and I told the kids to hide under the bed,” a 26-year-old mother of five told me. “A wooden beam fell on top of me and as I ran downstairs the hillside had slid into the kitchen.”
She stopped mid-sentence and a fiery expression took over her face as we heard a truck rumbling up the dirt track. She ran to the gap of her tent to shout, “Agua! Agua!” Her children, at her side, also cried out for water. The water-filled wagon rolled on by.
“Thirteen of us live here, three adults and 10 children,” she continued. “They are having nightmares and the mosquitoes are terrible.”
She says the aid is sufficient for now, but she worries about the future because she cannot work. She was a door-to-door salesman, but now she cannot leave as what little she has will be stolen.
“There was total looting on the night of the earthquake. People in masks stole everything they could and they continue to do so now.”
We asked her if she had a message for the world. “Please, just help us,” was all she could muster.
Cars and trucks were still coming to that scraggly patch of earth outside of El Matal where hundreds were doing their best to restart their lives. For now, the people are surviving, but one day these volunteers will have to go back to work, just as I have to go back to teach. For those who’ve had their lives destroyed there must be one pressing question, for how long will this help continue to arrive? With crime increasing, I fear for what will come after that last volunteer leaves.
A few days later I returned to school. My students moaned about having to do a test. I told them they’re lucky to have a school in which to sit.