PEDERNALES- The strongest earthquake to hit Ecuador since 1979, with a magnitude of 7.8, was centred on Ecuador’s sparsely populated fishing ports and tourist beaches, 105 miles (170 kilometers) northwest of Quito, the capital. President Rafael Correa said at least 233 people had died.
Correa reported the death toll on his official Twitter account while flying back from Rome to deal with the crisis. Officials earlier had reported more than 580 people injured.
Vice President Jorge Glas said there were deaths in the cities of Manta, Portoviejo and Guayaquil – all several hundred kilometres (miles) from the centre of the quake struck shortly after nightfall Saturday.
Correa declared a national emergency and urged Ecuadoreans to stay strong while authorities handle the disaster.
“Everything can be rebuilt, but what can’t be rebuilt are human lives, and that’s the most painful,” he said in a telephone call to state TV before departing Rome straight for Manta.
Glas said 10,000 armed forces had been deployed to help. In addition, 4,600 national police were sent to the towns near the epicentre.
Officials said shelters had been set up and field hospitals were being deployed in Pedernales and Portoviejo. More than 3,000 packages of food and nearly 8,000 sleeping kits were being delivered. Electricity in Manabi province, the hardest hit, remained mostly down as authorities focused on finding survivors.
The government is drawing on $600 million in emergency funding from multilateral banks to rebuild, Correa said.
The US Geological Survey originally put the quake at a magnitude of 7.4 then raised it to 7.8. It had a depth of 19 kilometres (12 miles). More than 135 aftershocks followed, one as strong as magnitude-5.6, and authorities urged residents to brace for even stronger ones in the coming hours and days.