PEDERNALES, Ecuador (Reuters) - Rescuers in Ecuador were losing hope on Tuesday of finding more survivors from an earthquake that killed nearly 500 people and dealt a shattering blow to the South American OPEC country’s already fragile economy.
Praying for miracles, distraught family members beseeched rescue teams to find missing loved ones as they used dogs, bare hands and excavators to hunt through debris of flattened homes, hotels and stores in the hardest-hit Pacific coastal region.
The death toll stood at 480 on Tuesday afternoon but was expected to rise.
The 7.8 magnitude quake, which struck late on Saturday, also left 107 people missing, and injured more than 4,000, according to the latest government tallies.
Supervising rescue work in the disaster zone, Ecuador’s leftist president, Rafael Correa, said the quake inflicted $2 billion to $3 billion of damage to the oil-dependent economy and could knock 2 to 3 percentage points off growth.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, it will be a long struggle. ... Reconstruction for years, billions (of dollars) in investment,” said Correa, who appeared deeply moved.
“In the short term, we’re going to need tens of millions of dollars,” Correa added from the quake-hit town of Tarqui, donning a mask, gloves and helmet.
Growth in Ecuador’s small economy had already been forecast at near zero this year because of plunging oil revenues.
The quake, Ecuador’s worst in decades, destroyed or damaged about 1,500 buildings, triggered mudslides and left some 20,500 people sleeping in shelters, according to the government.
‘FIND MY BROTHER!’
In Pedernales, a devastated beach town, crowds gathered behind yellow tape to watch firefighters and police sift through rubble overnight.
The town’s soccer stadium served as a relief center and morgue. Some residents wore masks to protect themselves from the smell of bodies decomposing in the heat.
“Find my brother! Please!” shouted Manuel, 17, throwing his arms to the sky by a corner store where his younger brother was working when the quake struck.
When an onlooker said recovering a body would at least give him the comfort of burying his sibling, he yelled: “Don’t say that!”
Three priests said prayers and sprinkled holy water on bodies being hauled out of the debris of a small supermarket near Pedernales’ central square and church.
The corpses of two adults and one child had already been carried out on stretchers, and firefighters, soldiers and police were still scouring for a missing child.
“My cousin said you could hear people yelling until yesterday,” said Tito Torres, 20, the son of the store’s owners, who rushed to Pedernales from Quito after the quake.
His parents managed to run out of the store before the roof partially collapsed. “This is terrible,” he said, adding survivors had been raiding the destroyed store for food.
Some 54 people had been rescued alive since Saturday, the government said, but time was running out for people with missing relatives. As of Tuesday, rescue efforts were more of a search for corpses, Interior Minister Jose Serrano told Reuters.
In isolated villages and towns, survivors struggled without water, power or transport, although people rendered homeless by the quake were flocking to shelters.
“Before we were in the streets with my mom, who is 81,” said Rosa Cagua, 60, as she and some 200 others sat in a big makeshift tent in Pedernales. “At least here they have mattresses and food.”
Rescuers continued searching on Tuesday but the unmistakable smell of death told them what they were likely to find.
“There are bodies crushed in the wreckage and from the smell it’s obvious they are dead,” said Army Captain Marco Borja in the small tourist village of Canoa, adding that rescuers on Tuesday brought out as many as eight bodies.
In 1979, a magnitude 7.7 quake in Ecuador killed at least 600 people and injured 20,000, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
With a presidential election slated for next year, the government’s response was under close scrutiny.
Security forces and relief workers appeared to mobilize quickly and government officials were fast to reach scenes of disaster, but many survivors in isolated areas complained they still lacked water, food and medicines.
The mayor of Muisne island, closest to the epicenter of the quake, said all inhabitants had been evacuated to temporary shelters on the nearby mainland.
“We’ve lost everything we acquired with years of work. We feel completely abandoned,” he told local radio. “We need the government to relocate us.”
Nearly 400 rescue workers flew in from countries in Latin America, along with 83 specialists from Switzerland and Spain.
The United States said it would dispatch a team of disaster experts, while Cuba was sending doctors.
U.S. President Barack Obama called Correa on Tuesday “to convey the condolences of the American people for the loss of life caused by the earthquake,” the White House said.
To finance emergency efforts, some $600 million in credit from multilateral lenders was activated, Ecuador said.
Ecuador also signed off on Monday on a $2 billion credit line from the China Development Bank to finance public investment. Ecuador and China, the country’s main financier since 2009, had been negotiating the credit before the quake.
Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Pedernales and Ana Isabel Martinez in Canoa; Additional reporting by Alexandra Valencia and Diego Ore in Quito; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by James Dalgleish and Peter Cooney