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by: Andres Schipani, Andes Correspondent and agencies
A powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake rattled coastal Ecuador on Saturday night killing at least 77, injuring more than 570 and causing widespread damage.
The tremor was the strongest to hit the Andean country since 1979, and came only a day after a 7.3 magnitude quake hit Japan on the other side of the Pacific.
Gabriel Alcivar, mayor of Pedernales, a town of 40,000 near the quake's epicentre, pleaded for authorities to send earthmoving machines and emergency rescue workers as dozens of buildings in the town were flattened, trapping residents among the rubble. He said looting had broken out amid the chaos but authorities were too busy trying to save lives to re-establish order.
"This wasn't just a house that collapsed, it was an entire town," he said.
President Rafael Correa signed a decree declaring a national emergency and rushed home from a visit to Rome, urging Ecuadoreans to stay strong while authorities handle the disaster.
Ecuador’s Geophysics Institute described “considerable damage” in the area of the epicentre — about 200km from the capital Quito — and in the country’s largest city, Guayaquil. In Quito, residents said they felt the quake for almost a minute which reportedly left parts of the city without power or telephone service.
Ecuador's Risk Management agency said 10,000 armed forces had been deployed to help while 3,500 national police were also sent to the towns of Manabí, Esmeraldas and Guayas y Santa Elena.
In Manta, the airport was closed after the control tower collapsed, injuring an air traffic control worker and a security guard.
“The earthquake was felt strongly,” said Elena Ruiz, a non-governmental organisation worker based Quito. “I rushed down eight stories, trembling, my whole body was shaking.” She said the usually-calm streets of her leafy neighbourhood were packed with shocked and confused residents.
Pictures posted online showed a collapsed bridge in Guayaquil, an airport control tower knocked down in Manta, and a collapsed building in Portoviejo. Ecuador’s government did not issue a tsunami alert, and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centresaid that the “tsunami threat has now largely passed”.
The earthquake was also reportedly felt in parts of southern Colombia and northern Peru.
The US Geological Service said “seven magnitude or greater earthquakes have occurred within 250km of this event since 1900”. If the damage proves truly serious this time, reconstruction efforts could put further strain on an economy forecast by the IMF to shrink 4.5 per cent in this year amid lower oil prices.
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