NEW: More than 480 people were killed, Ecuador's defense minister says
"It's the worst tragedy in 60 years," he tells reporters
The magnitude-7.8 quake struck Saturday night
The powerful earthquake that killed more than 480 people in Ecuador is the worst disaster the country has faced in decades, a top official said Tuesday.
“It’s the worst tragedy in 60 years,” Defense Minister Ricardo Patiño said. “We’re facing the most difficult phase right now, which is rescuing victims and recovering bodies.”
The Ministry of Security’s risk management agency released a statement updating the death toll from Saturday’s magnitude-7.8 earthquake. It now stands at at least 480, with more than 4,000 injured.
Recovery ‘years away’
“We’re removing debris, and we will very likely find more bodies,” Patiño told reporters. “It’s going to take us years to recover from this.”
Rescue crews and aid from Latin America and beyond have poured into the South American nation since the earthquake, which caused widespread damage throughout the country, but especially on the coast.
The earthquake is the deadliest to hit Ecuador since March 1987 when 1,000 people died in a 7.2-magnitude temblor, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Another earthquake in 1949 killed 5,000 people, Patiño told reporters Tuesday.
Tourist areas among hardest hit
The hardest-hit area of the South American nation was the coastal Manabi Province, where about 200 people died, said Ricardo Peñaherrera of Ecuador’s national emergency management office. There were at least dozens and perhaps hundreds of collapsed buildings there, Patiño said.
The cities of Manta, Portoviejo and Pedernales, a tourist destination, saw the most devastation.
Images from around the country posted on social media by CNN crews in the field and local authorities showed huge piles of rubble, collapsed roads and rescuers rushing to help.
In Pedernales, a beautiful tourist city on the Pacific coast, the otherwise-stunning view out across the ocean is marred by the destruction from the shoreline, reaching back throughout the city.
A restaurant sits destroyed. Behind it, a five-story hotel, where rescuers have already recovered five bodies. Evidence of others trapped in the rubble brought a rush of help to the site, but as yet they haven’t found anyone else alive there.
While CNN was reporting from the city, another magnitude-5.5 aftershock brought back memories and further unnerved people in this devastated city.
Those who had escaped the first tremor fled again, and rescue workers had to put down tools to make sure those around were safe. Hundreds are still without shelter. The government is trying to provide the basics and reassure survivors that the worst is over.
In yet another tense moment for residents, an earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.1 struck off the coast of Ecuador early Wednesday, the U.S. Geological Survey reported. No tsunami warning was issued.
Waiting, grateful to have survived
“It was something very ugly. We thought it was the end of the world,” one survivor in Pedernales told CNN’s Gustavo Valdes on Monday about Saturday’s quake. “It started hard, way too hard. We fell. We couldn’t get up. It was too strong. … If it had fallen the other way, we would have died.”
Victims are grateful they survived, he said, but uncertain of what to do next.
“We are waiting to see what we can do, waiting for what the President tells us,” he said. “There is no work.”
Elsewhere, residents struggle to recover amid the devastation. One two-story residence had been brought down to one – the lower floor completely flattened.
Thankfully the family on the first floor wasn’t home at the time, but those on the upper floor felt the initial shock and were able to scramble outside before their home collapsed.
The damage is almost universal, with small and large buildings showing signs of the damage wrought by the quake.
The government is going door to door, conducting initial inspections and looking for survivors and victims. Those who survived are getting by as best they can, putting up tents and collecting basic supplies furnished by the government.
One family gratefully tapped into a CNN crew’s power supply, their phones springing to life, messages once again connecting them to friends and relatives.
Ecuador deployed 10,000 soldiers and 4,600 police officers to the affected areas. Hundreds of rescuers from eight countries have traveled to Ecuador to help in relief efforts. Troops set up mobile hospitals and temporary shelters. The military also brought in search dogs to help find survivors and bodies.
Still, getting supplies and rescue crews to the affected areas has been a challenge.
“The lack of water and communication remains a big problem,” Peñaherrera told CNN en Español. “Many highways are in bad shape, especially in the mountainous area, because it has been raining recently due to (the) El Niño weather phenomenon.”