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Environment

Quake-hit Ecuadorean beach town grapples with crisis: again

PEDERNALES, Ecuador (Reuters) - The rustic beach town of Pedernales, devastated by Ecuador’s magnitude 7.8 quake, has a history of being struck by tragedy and pulling itself back up again.

During the 1980s, the Pacific coastal town tapped into the “blue revolution” of farmed seafood by cultivating shrimp, helping Ecuador become the world’s second biggest exporter of the crustacean.

A decade later, a virus known as the white spot syndrome ravaged the industry. To recover, Pedernales turned to tourism, luring vacationers with its palm tree-dotted coastline and new hotels.

But its 20-km (12-mile) beach stretch now lies in ruin, and surviving residents are once again faced with an economic disaster and a long road to recovery.

“This town must be cursed,” said Hilda Morales, 58, as she salvaged possessions, including religious images, from the debris of her home.

“First the white spot, and now this tragedy. We’re doomed.”

Of course Saturday’s quake, which killed nearly 500 people and was the largest to strike Ecuador in decades, inflicted a human toll the shrimp catastrophe did not. In Pedernales, at least 164 people died, 3,000 were injured, and more than 500 buildings were destroyed, with damage to several hundred more.

The town’s once animated streets are now filled with rubble, rescue workers, and the mattresses of survivors camping out. Makeshift tents are being used to house corpses and survivors. People say they need water, food and medicines.

TO REBUILD, AGAIN

Some residents said they were packing up and leaving behind their destroyed homes to seek supplies and shelter elsewhere.

“The entire town is walking away and we don’t know whether we’ll ever be able to return,” said Jose Molina, 60, as he tried to salvage goods from his collapsed pharmacy.

“For the time being the government has sent machinery, water, and some food, but there’s so much to do.”

President Rafael Correa, who cut short a trip to Italy to fly home and tour affected areas, has said rebuilding will take years and cost billions of dollars.

Leftist Correa had seen promise in Ecuador’s beaches, investing in building a highway to make previously remote coastal towns more accessible, and launching a major tourism campaign.

Some 1.5 million foreign vacationers flocked to Ecuador last year, contributing $1.7 billion dollars to the OPEC nation’s otherwise largely oil and export-dependent economy.

Given the importance of tourism, especially amid depressed world oil prices, Correa has vowed to revive Manabi province, containing Pedernales, as quickly as possible.

“We rebuilt Manabi once and we’ll do it again,” he said on Tuesday, in reference to the transformation of rural roads into highways.

Correa said the quake inflicted between $2 billion and $3 billion of damage to the country’s economy and could knock two to three percentage points off growth.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, it will be a long struggle.”

With a presidential election looming for February next year, the government’s response to the disaster is under close scrutiny. So far, it has appeared speedy and thorough, though there has been some looting and complaints of aid not reaching the remotest areas.

Additional reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito, Julia Symmes Cobb in Pedernales; Writing by Diego Ore and Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry

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