From the moment the earthquake happened, I was anxious to go to the coastal areas that were most affected. Possibly because of my past life working for a relief agency, where emergencies were an immediate call to action to help those who were, and are, facing so much loss – loss of family and friends, of homes, of livelihoods, of a sense of peace and security. But also a sense of uncertainty to be faced with such loss –to look beyond the tragedy to find the hope. While at the same time, managing the risks for my colleagues and myself of possibly facing another strong replica that might leave us among the disaster.
With five of my colleagues from the Bank; Oscar Alvarado, Mauricio Cuellar, Cristina Medina, Patricia Lopez, and Mario Saurdi; we had the chance finally to go about one week after the quake to Manta, one of the cities most affected, and one where the Bank has been working for more than two years. As the plane neared landing at the airport that now had no control tower, I anxiously looked out the window expecting to see the first signs of the devastation. What was not so evident from above, quickly became clear on the ground. As we left the airport, we began to see the first signs of this terrible event – buildings cracked and crumbled, sidewalks ripped open, and then a barricaded “ground zero”. It was the images we had been seeing on television, in the papers, but now with a power that can only be captured through one’s own eyes.
With the support of the Mayor, we were able to enter into Tarqui - “ground zero”. What was once the hub of activity around Manta, now had become a ghost town. With little hope of finding survivors, the search and rescue efforts were coming to an end. But the remnants of the lives lost were so profoundly evident. One of our counterparts described the moments of the earthquake as a scene from a horror movie, as people scrambled about without knowing where to turn. He shared how an unknown woman just grabbed onto his arm screaming for help. Several images are implanted in my mind, and likely will be for the rest of my life – a hotel literally split in two, a bed in a leaning building crushed by the floors above, a cross in the midst of a crumbled building remembering the lives lost in that place. I imagined those who remain there, still to be found.
As I have said to many in these days – we are working as a way to overcome our sadness, with great fury. There has been a profound sense of solidarity among our staff, with our counterparts, among Ecuadorians “de sangre y de corazón”, to do whatever we can do to be of some help to our neighbors. The shelves of supermarkets in Quito were emptied to buy water and basic supplies for those on the coast. Schools, churches, businesses, all have been organizing drives for donations to help the affected areas. And the World Bank team working on Ecuador joined these efforts – bringing in supplies to help the community of one of our colleagues devastated by the quake, supporting the Community Connections Campaign to contribute as individuals and as an institution to the relief efforts, and working intensively with our counterparts to help find solutions to respond to the urgent needs while helping to look towards the future. Long after the images have faded from the news, a multiplicity of needs remain; and our support continues.
We were remarkably well prepared for such an unexpected event. Several of our projects are remarkably well-designed to facilitate this unpredicted need. Ours is an institution that can contribute to restoring lives and livelihoods, to build back better, to use this tragedy as an opportunity for development, but these noble pursuits are met with numerous obstacles. It will require great creativity, flexibility, and energy to find the opportune solutions to recover hope. But there is much we can do and must do – this is the comfort I take with me.