On Saturday evening, I was sitting at the kitchen table after dinner with my indigenous Kichwa-speaking host family. We were all quite tired, having spent most of the afternoon moving handmade adobe bricks to a nearby site where there were plans to construct a new house. All of the sudden, as if in a bizarre dream, the ground beneath my feet began to move.
Unsure what to do, we sat frozen for several seconds before rushing outside to the safety of the wide-open pasture. My host mother calmly held the hand of her husband as we all stood together in the cold. The only noise to be heard was the bleating of the family’s sheep and the faint rattling of the glass windows in the house. It felt as though we were standing on a small boat with the waves of the ocean carrying us up and down.
Finally—after what seemed like an eternity—the ground stopped moving, and all went quiet again.
The earthquake took place while myself and five other Pitzer College students were participating in a four-day rural stay in the mountainous province of Imbabura, Ecuador. With no Internet or television access in our homes, we had no idea at the time how truly powerful and devastating the seismic movements had been.
The following day, I discovered my phone inundated with dozens of urgent messages from concerned family members and friends, asking me if I was safe. Then I began reading the headlines and looking at photographs of what had happened. I was in shock and disbelief as I scrolled through endless pictures of towns that had been completely wiped out. Large buildings and family homes alike had collapsed to the ground; highways and roads ripped apart creating sink holes.
According to the most recent numbers, the Ecuadorian government has reported that more than 500 people have died, a statistic that will continue to rise as rescuers comb through the rubble. Several thousand people suffered severe injuries, creating massive overcrowding in the surviving hospitals and medical centers. Initial statements from the government have estimated that the earthquake has caused many billions of dollars in material damage.
At this moment, the entire world is watching as this small Andean nation scrambles to recover from the worst natural disaster in decades. International news crews are swarming the streets of cities like Portoviejo and Esmeraldas, broadcasting the images and stories of those affected by the earthquake. Food, water, medical equipment, and supplies are already pouring into Ecuador from the far corners of the globe. Many countries are sending aid workers to help provide disaster relief in the impacted coastal regions.
The biggest question facing Ecuador is: what happens in one month from now? What happens six months or a year from now? When all the news crews and the aid workers inevitably go home, people around the world will begin to forget that this earthquake ever happened. They will forget that not only did hundreds of people lose their lives, but that thousands more lost their homes and their livelihoods.
In fact, even before the earthquake happened, Ecuador was in a very precarious situation. With the recent decline of petroleum prices in international markets, the country has found itself in the midst of a painful economic downturn that is affecting millions of people. Twenty-five percent of the Ecuador’s population is living below the poverty line, and millions more are just barely scraping by.
The destruction caused by the recent earthquake will only serve to exacerbate many of the existing problems this country faces. It is going to take a long time to rebuild the lives of the people who have been hit by this natural disaster—it’s a matter of years, not a matter of weeks or months.
While living in Ecuador for the past four months, I have fallen in love with this country. Not only am I enamored with the beautiful landscapes and cities, but also with the incredibly kind and generous Ecuadorian people. It is genuinely difficult for me to imagine that in several weeks, very few people will be cognizant or informed of what is going on in Ecuador.
The reality is that there will undoubtedly soon be another horrible tragedy somewhere in the world—a wildfire, a hurricane, a mass shooting—a tragedy that will once again momentarily capture the world’s hearts with intense sadness. For myself, however, I both hope and fear that the images I have witnessed in Ecuador will never leave me.
Chance Kawar PZ ’17 is a Political Studies major and Spanish minor. He is currently spending a semester in Quito, Ecuador for a study abroad program.