10 days ago, I was walking from my kitchen to the living room in Quito, Ecuador, when I felt the ground lurch under my feet, as if I were on a boat that had momentarily strayed into rough waters. It’s nothing, I thought and sat down at my computer. A few minutes the shaking started again, and with it came the same mild feeling of seasickness. Then the door began to rattle as if someone were desperate on getting into my apartment. It was something that I remembered from several years ago in Asia, that I had been in an earthquake. By the time I decided to grab my keys and head downstairs, the tremors had subsided.
That evening I received a few nervous, confused texts from friends along the lines of “was your house shaking too?”. I spent the following morning and afternoon in a small pueblo just outside of Quito where I exchanged some words and overheard more concerning the tremors from the night before. It was only when I returned home that evening and had a chance to get on the internet that I realized that Quito and most of the non-coastal regions of Ecuador had in fact been very lucky.
Damage in the capital itself was limited to a few collapsed buildings. However, the situation along parts of the coast, especially in Manabí province was far more severe. Cities and towns such as Pedernales, Portviejo, Manta, and Canoa all suffered extensive damage as a result of the earthquake, and as of today the death toll has risen to 654, with 56 missing and more than 7,000 injured. President Rafael Correa has stated that the recovery is expected to cost “billions of dollars”.
Quiteños and Ecuadorians more generally speaking have responded admirably in the aftermath of the disaster. Apart from the official government response, people here have demonstrated a great willingness to help those in impacted areas. Puntos solidarios (solidarity points) have sprung all around Quito and it is a common sight to see boxes and piles of donated goods at the front of supermarkets and other large stores. The other day I went with a friend to volunteer at a city park where the coordination of donations was taking place only to be told that they had too many volunteers already. As I stood in front of the park, a long line of trucks carrying food, clothes and other materials passed by and was greeted by warm applause and cheers from the assembled crowds on both sides of the main road.
All of these are heartening signs of a society eager to help its own members who are currently experiencing considerable hardship. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that tourism to Ecuador will suffer. Many coastal cities and towns popular with native and foreign tourists were among those hit the hardest by the earthquake, and these areas will likely take at least several years to fully recover. Tourism is an important source of revenue for Ecuador, especially during a period of historically low oil and gas prices. This said, in the aftermath of the earthquake, one of the most important things that anyone interested in assisting Ecuador at this time can do is to continue to visit the country and to engage with its people. Volunteering, in particular, provides an important show of support and solidarity for a society that is trying to respond to its worst natural disaster in decades.