In the days after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake flattened much of Ecuador’s Northwest coast, priests like Fr. Euclides Carrillo were sent by Archbishop Lorenzo Voltolini to fan the streets to bless the deceased and accompany the grieving. In the city of Pedernales where few building were left standing and the smell of death clings to the rubble the needs are overwhelming.
“One woman embraced me and would not let me go,” says Fr. Euclides executive director of Caritas Santo Domingo of a mother who lost her child. “The pain is so huge it cannot be explained. To see a loved one, a son, dead and decomposing after a day in 40 C degree heat. (As a priest) one can say that they are fine, because we are in comparison to these people who have lost their homes, their brothers, everything. But the truth is the pain of these people also pains us deeply.”
The earthquake took more than people’s homes. It took loved ones. It took jobs. It took peace of mind. “The problems are so huge that our efforts feel small within the magnitude of the disaster,” says Fr. Euclides. “We are looking how we (the Church) can be a bridge of help to the people of Pedernales.”
The Church is responding on multiple fronts. To get people off the streets temporary shelters have been set up in Santo Domingo. Currently people are staying in common spaces and using communal bathrooms.
“Right now they are all sleeping in the 1600 square meter space of an auditorium,” says Fr. Euclides of one of the Church shelters. “If you have 300 people in one room with 15 bathroom stalls, it becomes very difficult to share. The first weeks might be fine, but with time difficulties are going to arise. We want to get large tents to provide some sense of privacy for the families.”
In the coming weeks Fr. Euclides says that Caritas will begin looking at some transitional shelter solutions made up of local materials such as bamboo. These temporary homes could house people for a few years while the communities are rebuilt. “Some analyze that the recovery of Manabí will last up to five years,” says Fr. Euclides. “A small group says that in Pedernales it would be more economical to build a completely new city because they’d have to demolish and rebuild the entire sewage system. It’s a very grave situation.”
Complicating factor is that Ecuador was already suffering an economic downturn due to depressed oil prices. The most affected areas also relied on tourism as their main economic lifeline. “Business has fallen through the floor,” says Fr. Euclides. “Throughout the region and along the coast people lived from tourism. Now all these people have been left without a source of income. Tourism is finished in this area (for the foreseeable future). We are going to need to provide nutritional support for at least a year to cover the needs.”
An outpouring of support from concerned citizens means that immediate food needs are being met, but priests like Fr. Euclides are worried about what will happen once that dries up. “Part of the idiosyncrasy of human nature is that when pain comes people unite,” says Fr. Euclides. “But they quickly forget about that pain and they forget about the affected. Right now we have a lot of donations, enough to feed our people. What worries me is what happens two weeks from now? How will our provisions be then?”
The local Church in Santo Domingo has already provided 50 tons of food and is now looking to create a food bank where they can stockpile goods. A longer-term strategy is needed in order to meet the needs of families as they rebuild their lives.
“Right now we need the whole world,” says Fr. Euclides. “I believe that the people of Manabí are capable of more than simply crying for the deceased, they are capable of lifting themselves up because they are very brave. As Caritas (member organizations) we will capitalize on the support we receive and work together to help our brothers. The Church is a sign of hope. When people see us (priests) it encourages them greatly.”