A personal account of the 7,8-magnitude earthquake that struck the coast of Ecuador on Saturday 16th of April, 2016
By Kristina Eger, Class of 2007
It has been almost two years since I moved to Portoviejo to work as an advisor for a local NGO on gender equality. During this time, Portoviejo has become much more than a working environment to me. I fell in love with its beautiful beaches, delicious seafood, and with the locals’ kindness and entrepreneurial spirit. But most importantly, I fell in love with a “Portovejense”, as the locals are called, and in January 2016 our son was born.
The 16th of April was just a normal Saturday. We went out for a cup of coffee and had just returned home. My partner was lying in bed reading and I was breastfeeding our baby next to him when the house started trembling. At first, we were not afraid – small tremors are quite common in Ecuador. Nevertheless, we decided to get up and head outside; by the time we arrived on the second floor of the house, however, everything had started moving with such intensity that we were not able to remain standing. We pressed ourselves against the wall, crouching down on the floor of our narrow corridor. The walls moved, as if we were on a boat on a stormy sea.
First, I felt scared for our lives. It seemed as if any second the walls of our house would fall on top of us and bury us alive. I tried to shelter my three-months-old baby from falling debris with my own body. At that moment sadness overcame me. I had wasted so much time of my life working and worrying about the future, while I would have rather spent more time with my family and enjoying the moment. But then I started feeling so much love for my partner and baby and I was thankful to be close to those that I most cared about in those difficult moments.
The reassuring voice of my boyfriend brought me back to the sound of cracking walls, shattering glass, and screaming neighbours. Suddenly the lights went off and we were sitting in complete darkness. When the earth stopped moving, I felt relief—we were alive, and our house was still standing. We managed to call my in-laws in Portoviejo to make sure that they were all right, and my family abroad to ask for help.
Then we went on Facebook to check what others had posted on the earthquake—and what we saw was truly frightening: the centre of Portoviejo was almost completely levelled, half-destroyed shops were being looted, the two main supermarkets had collapsed, and the local prison had been severely damaged, allowing many inmates to escape. The only hospital that was still standing was swamped with severely injured patients, and the death toll had already reached over a hundred.
When our cell phones ran out of battery, it was already Sunday morning. There was still no electricity or running water, so we started to clean up the chaos in our house and searched for candles, matches, torches, bottled water, food and diapers. We put a mattress inside, right by the front door, to be able to get up and run outside every time we felt the earth tremble. We had to get up in the middle of the night many times, as there were over a hundred aftershocks during the first two days.
By Monday morning our water supply was getting scarce. I felt worried that there had been no reaction from either my country’s Embassy—who had my coordinates on their emergency list—or from the NGO that had send me to work here under the assurance of safeguarding my physical integrity. The only response came from my local employer, in the form of a car sent to my house with instructions to pick me up and drive me to the office for work. They showed no interest in the wellbeing of my family or whether we had enough supplies to survive. In that moment I realized that we were completely on our own.
At that point I made a very difficult decision; to convince my boyfriend to leave his family and the place where he grew up in behind. One day later, our bodies landed in the capital Quito, yet our minds remained in Portoviejo. My parents-in-law will always remember the earthquake as the one that took away their son, grandson and daughter-in-law. We lost a loving extended family and all the places that had a special meaning to us: the office we first met at, the cinema where we saw our first movie together, the café we always ate at, the hotel where we stayed at the beach on weekends, and the wedding we had planned for the week after the earthquake.
One week later there have been over a thousand aftershocks and this is also what the psychic state most people were in – shock. With every aftershock the memories of the first destructive tremor came back with similar intensity, and therefore there was no space, nor physical nor mental, for people to find rest. The government announced the risk of an epidemic, if the dead bodies could not be retrieved within the next few days. The drastic plan was to demolish every building that had suffered irreparable damage and was at risk of collapse in the aftershocks, which meant it was not possible to continue to search for those that might still be alive.
For many survivors the earthquake marked a new beginning in their lives—one which many described as being reborn. For me it felt as if the earthquake did not only move the earth and destroy buildings: it shook my whole life. Us humans have no control over the moving earth and I felt like I had lost control over my life. It all happened so intensely and unexpectedly that I was completely unprepared and it took me more than three months to be able to stand still again and see clearly. I could see that some of my plans, relations, dreams, attitudes and values had been so damaged after the earthquake that they had to be demolished, while others had suffered only minor damage and I could fortify them. Just like Portoviejo, my life had to be rebuilt.