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Ecuador steps up quake drills in wake of Chile disaster

10 April 10 22:06 GMT

By Irene Caselli
Quito

When a devastating earthquake struck Chile in February, people in the Galapagos Islands, some 5,000km away, were quickly caught up in the emergency.

Tourists and locals were woken up in the middle of the night by police knocking on their doors saying they had to evacuate to high ground because of a tsunami warning. The confusion was huge, as nobody was aware of an emergency plan.

"It was so distressing, people were crying, everybody was scared," says Luz Leon Ordonez, who works in a hotel in Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the archipelago situated nearly 1,000km west of mainland Ecuador.

"Nobody knew what to do, all we knew were things we had heard on the radio. No official was around to tell us how to protect ourselves."

The authorities lifted the warning a few hours later, leaving behind a huge sense of relief and one main question: how would Ecuador fare in case of an earthquake or a tsunami?

This question has been asked over and over again in recent weeks, thanks mainly to a massive media campaign, and the answers have been far from comforting.

Like Chile, Ecuador is a country at high seismic risk since it lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the line of frequent quakes and volcanic eruptions that circles the entire Pacific rim.

But unlike Chile, everybody here seems to agree, Ecuador has no culture of earthquake preparedness, so generally people do not know how to react and buildings are not resistant.

In a poll by El Universo newspaper, 85% of respondents in the cities of Quito and Guayaquil, respectively Ecuador's capital and its largest city, said the authorities had not informed citizens on what to do in case of an emergency, and 40% did not know what to do if an earthquake struck.

The high number of unregulated buildings, a growing population and a lack of preparedness makes Quito one of the most vulnerable cities in the world, according to GeoHazards International.

Hugo Yepes, director of the Geophysics Institute of Ecuador, agrees that Quito is particularly at risk.

"Every time a new building is built and a new person is born, vulnerability grows and with it the risk," he says.

Training

With 1.5 million inhabitants, Quito stretches along a valley overlooked by an active volcano, Pichincha. The last eruption was in 1999 but this has not deterred people from building on its slopes.

Memories of earthquakes are not as fresh.

The most recent strong one, in 1987, had its epicentre 80km north of Quito. The quake, of magnitude 6.9, severely damaged many buildings.

"From our history we can tell that earthquakes of low intensity or with an epicentre distant from Quito did cause damage," Mr Yepes says.

"If there was a stronger earthquake here in Quito, the consequences would be much closer to that of Haiti than that of Chile," he says referring to the earthquake which hit Haiti in January.

Tatiana Moreno, national co-ordinator for emergency operations at Ecuador's Red Cross, says that after Chile's earthquake, requests for emergency training have grown.

"We don't have the capacity to train everyone," she says.

The Red Cross recently conducted an emergency exercise at the Manuela Canizares High School in northern Quito. The school has 3,000 pupils but only a class of 50 took part.

Those not being trained said they had no idea what to do in an emergency.

"We have never done a drill and have not been shown evacuation plans," said Michelle Montalvo, 15.

"Often people don't learn about this at home, but here in school we should be more careful and we should be getting ready for an emergency."

Attitudes

The Ministry of Education says it is working on adding emergency procedures to the national curriculum.

But the Red Cross says training is not enough.

"We are the Red Cross and the building we're in doesn't have an emergency exit. Why? Because when it was built, there was another logic behind it... People got used to living with risk. But that has to change," says Ms Moreno.

Hermel Flores, president of Quito's Chamber of Construction, says that up to 70% of Quito's buildings could collapse if the city were hit by a quake similar to the one that struck Haiti.

At particular risk is the historic centre with its adobe structures and the southern suburbs of the city which has a high concentration of poor neighbourhoods.

Quito City Council has announced it will relocate up to 30,000 people who live in the city's most at risk neighbourhoods, while the housing ministry is pushing to get a new building code out faster.

Preparedness and prevention are also the focus of the National Secretariat for Risk Management, the body in charge of co-ordinating all the emergency efforts in the country, which has been operating since last year.

But its director, Maria del Pilar Cornejo, says changing attitudes will take time.

"You can have all the money in the world and all the necessary equipment, but without the right mentality, there is nothing you can do."

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