Thursday, April 21, 2016

Update from Jama

I got back from the coast this morning. Thank you for praying for our trip and for the people affected by the earthquake. The devastation is indeed terrible. We saw things that were extremely sad, and other things that gave encouragement in the middle of the suffering. Since I'm getting a lot of questions, I thought I'd start by writing a summary of some of my observations. This got longer than I intended; if you feel like it's too much to read, I understand.

I went with a couple of guys from a non-governmental organization which builds houses for people with low resources. They bring young people from Canada as volunteers for the construction. Before the earthquake they began organizing a trip to Jama to build about 20 new houses. The volunteers were scheduled to arrive at the beginning of next month. Their contact in Jama is the local Catholic priest. The purpose of our trip was to deliver donations of basic supplies to the priest to help with relief from the earthquake, to re-evaluate their constructions plans, and to consider other ways to help from this point forward. We loaded their bus with maybe about 3 tons of supplies like water, rice, beans, canned meat, cereal, toilet paper, bedding and other donations they had collected.

Jama is about 125 miles directly west of Quito. Because of challenges in the mountains and roads of Ecuador, the trip is normally extended to 6 or 7 hours. To make a long story short, this time we spent 26 hours getting there and 15 hours returning. Not all of our delays were directly related to effects from the earthquake, but most of them were at least exacerbated by them.

Concerns about travel safety are heightened because of highway robberies that have occurred since the earthquake. Some people have been ambushing the trucks that are taking supplies for victims. Our vehicle was, unfortunately, extra visibility, but police were very helpful for us, and during the most crucial major portions of our trip they gave us a police escort. Pedernales is one of the larger towns/small cities close to the epicenter, and we had to pass through it to get to Jama. Pedernales suffered tremendously from looting and other crime during the first couple of days in the aftermath, but by the time we arrived, there was a very strong police and military presence.

It is very difficult to sort between rumors and facts. Most people in and around Pedernales are under the impression that the number of casualties in that city alone is about 2000. They say that bodies were being laid out for identification, and only the ones which are identified are added to the official numbers the government is reporting. During our short time in Pedernales, however, we didn't find any evidence to support this, so it might not be true. We had also heard that Jama had not yet received any help. But by the time we got there, we found the city had received emergency rescuers and donations of goods. It's likely it arrived at Jama later than Pedernales, but it is there now. As we were leaving, we received news that San Vicente, had not yet received any help. I have no way of confirming or denying this. Hopefully, all towns and cities in the area are or will soon be receiving the help they need.

The condition of the buildings is terrible. My un-expert opinion is that 80% or more of the buildings are destroyed beyond repair, confirming the information I've seen elsewhere. The situation in Jama is at least as bad as Pedernales. It actually seemed that the percentage of flattened structures in Jama was worse than in Pedernales—probably due to lower standards of construction. It is clear that in most cases, the extent of the damage was increased by poor construction. Interestingly enough, some of the very poorest people are currently in the best situation. Those whose houses were built from caña (similar to bamboο) are the most likely to currently have a shelter.

The smell of death in these towns is terrible. As one walks down the street, one passes different spots that are worse than others; then maybe half a block later it gets a little better. The smell is probably an indication of where a body might have laid for a while or hasn't even been discovered yet. In some cases it could also be as simple as a refrigerator that has been without power for too long, and the chicken is spoiling. Every once in a while I have the sensation that I'm still smelling the odor that I left behind over a day ago.

I saw a few minor injuries, but I didn't visit any areas where people with more serious wounds were being cared for, so I don't have much to report in that way.

It was encouraging to see many trucks making the trip from Quito and other places to deliver donations to these communities. Both Pedernales and Jama have distribution centers where people can receive what they need. We can be assured that at least many of the donations in Quito are indeed making their way to their intended destiny.

There are, of course, some people who have been less affected by the earthquake (like those with houses of made of caña and who live out in the country). Unfortunately, some of them are taking advantage of the situation and seeking to accept as many donations as possible. Some of them are camping in makeshift shelters along the roads to appear as if they are needy. It's nearly impossible for outsiders to determine who truly needs help, and it is imperative that those taking donations work together closely with local people who know the difference.

After we delivered the donations we had taken, we spent a little time assessing the situation in Jama. I was prepared to stay a few days if there was a need I could fill, but there just didn't seem to be a clear one. Rescuers are there from other parts of Ecuador as well as other countries. They didn't seem overwhelmed by the amount of work to do, nor did they seem to be stressed or seeking help. The window of time for expecting to find survivors is coming to a close, and as an untrained person, there didn't seem to be anything I could add without potentially getting in the way. Hopefully donations will continue to arrive for as long as they are needed, and hopefully that will start to be coordinated better soon. The next steps will be to restore the power and water infrastructure and cell phone communication. Before too long the remaining buildings that are damaged need to be completely leveled to remove the hazards of unsafe structures.

Some people are moving away from these communities to the larger cities like Santo Domingo, Guayaquil and Quito. I saw several trucks moving furniture and household belongings out. Some are probably making a temporary move; others might be choosing to start all over. Those who are staying probably feel like the land they own is the only thing they have left and find it hard to abandon it. In every case, for those who stay and for those who leave, they need help to restore their lives.

The road between Jama and Pedernales was in pretty bad shape, but it was spotty. It seemed to especially be an issue wherever the original construction had involved filling in to make it level, and at junctures with bridges or other transitions. There were many places where the road had buckled, or some parts had risen or fallen. In one spot it had split apart into several strips. In most cases, slow and careful travel made it passable, a couple of the worst spots had already been repaired enough to get through. As we were leaving a few hours later, they had machinery spreading dirt over the spots that hadn't received any attention yet.

The stories of death and survival abound. I met one woman in front of her 3-story concrete house. The first floor crumbled while she was on that level, and floors two and three remained intact and came down on top of her and her two sons. She pointed out the spot where she crawled out from underneath what now looks like a 2-story house. It didn't look like there would have been room under there for her. Her aged father was crushed to his death in the adjoining room.

I also heard the story of a boy who was with his mom when the earthquake started. She had just enough time to push him out of the door before the house came down on top of her. The boy is the only one from his family who survived.

We saw dogs waiting faithfully by a pile of rubble that used to be the house of their owner.

It was extremely sad to see the destruction and the human suffering, but I don't regret going in the least. I am very glad that I had the chance to take this trip and help in the small ways that I did. As things continue to develop and needs arise, there may be more ways for all of us to get involved.


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