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Ecuador quake death toll rises to 350; billions needed to rebuild

Ecuador's earthquake death toll rose to 350 on Monday as traumatized survivors rested amid the rubble of their homes and rescuers dug for survivors in the Andean nation's shattered coastal region.

More than 2,000 were also injured in Saturday's 7.8 magnitude quake, which ripped apart buildings and roads and knocked out power along the Pacific coastline.

Giving the new tally of fatalities from Portoviejo town inside the disaster zone, President Rafael Correa told Reuters he feared the number would rise even further.

"Reconstruction will cost billions of dollars," he added.

The normally upbeat socialist president looked deeply moved as he chatted with victims during a tour of the shattered town in the South American OPEC nation, which was already suffering from the global slump in crude oil prices.

Further north, in the beach locality of Pedernales, survivors curled up on mattresses or plastic chairs next to flattened homes. Soldiers and police patrolled the hot, dark streets overnight while pockets of rescue workers plowed on.

At one point, firefighters entered a partially destroyed house to search for three children and a man apparently trapped inside, as a crowd of 40 gathered in the darkness to watch.

"My little cousins are inside. Before, there were noises, screams. We must find them," pleaded Isaac, 18, as the firemen combed the debris.

Tents sprang up in the town's still-intact stadium to store bodies, treat the injured, and distribute water, food, and blankets. Survivors wandered around with bruised limbs and bandaged cuts, while those with more serious injuries were evacuated to hospitals.

Gloom for Economy

The disaster is dreadful news for Ecuador's economy, already forecast for near-zero growth this year due to plunging oil income.

The energy industry appeared largely intact although the main refinery of Esmeraldas was closed as a precaution. However, exports of bananas, flowers, cocoa beans and fish could be slowed by ruined roads and port delays.

Michael Henderson, analyst at risk consultancy Maplecroft, said Ecuador was less well equipped to recover than Chile where a 2010 earthquake caused an estimated $30 billion in damage.

"Whereas Chile's economy was rebounding strongly from the global financial crisis when its own earthquake struck, Ecuador has been slowing sharply recently as lower oil prices depress activity," he said. "But total damage to assets in dollar terms may be quite a bit lower than in Chile due to the smaller magnitude of the earthquake and the fact that Ecuador is a much poorer country."

The quake could also play into political dynamics ahead of next year's presidential election.

The government's response seemed relatively speedy, with Vice President Jorge Glas—a potential candidate in the February 2017 vote—flying into the disaster zone within hours and Correa coming straight back from a trip in Italy.

But some survivors complained about lack of electricity and supplies, and aid had still not reached some areas.

With Ecuadoreans jittery about possible looting, armed men ambushed and robbed two trucks carrying water, clothes and other basics to Pedernales from Guayaquil, authorities said.

Prisoners on the Run

About 300 aftershocks have rattled survivors, who huddled in the streets, worried tremors could topple already cracked homes.

"We're scared of being in the house," said Yamil Faran, 47, surrounded by about 30 people in a street in Portoviejo. "When ... the aftershocks stop, we're going to see if we can repair it."

Some 130 inmates in Portoviejo took advantage of the destruction and chaos to climb over the collapsed walls of the low-security El Rodeo prison. More than 35 were recaptured.

On Monday, people swarmed into the middle of Portoviejo in search of materials of value among destroyed buildings, including a social security office. Desks and papers lay strewn around as locals carried off aluminum window frames and cables.

"I have to take some advantage from this horrible tragedy. I need money to buy food. There's no water, no light, and my house was destroyed," said Jorge Espinel, 40, who works in the recycling business.

About 13,500 security personnel were mobilized to keep order.

Patients and relatives wait outside the Colombia Clinic in Cali, Colombia, on April 16, 2016 after being evacuated following a powerful earthquake in Ecuador.
Luis Robayo | AFP | Getty Images
Patients and relatives wait outside the Colombia Clinic in Cali, Colombia, on April 16, 2016 after being evacuated following a powerful earthquake in Ecuador.

Some $600 million in credit from multilateral lenders was immediately activated for the emergency, the government said. Nearly 400 rescue workers flew in from various Latin American neighbors, along with 83 specialists from Switzerland and Spain.

Two Canadians were among the dead. Jennifer Mawn, 38, and her 12-year-old son, Arthur, died when the roof of their coastal residence collapsed.

Residents on the Galapagos islands, far off Ecuador's coast and home to numerous rare species, said they had not been affected by the quake.

The tremor followed two large and deadly quakes that have struck Japan since Thursday. Both countries are on the seismically active "Ring of Fire" that circles the Pacific, but the U.S. Geological Survey says large quakes separated by such distances would probably not be related.