NEW: Ecuador says 654 people are dead from the April 16 quake
NEW: The Risk Management office also reports 58 people are missing
Citing state of emergency, Ecuador's president announces a tax increase
The death toll from Ecuador’s magnitude-7.8 earthquake climbed to 654 Saturday evening, according to the country’s Risk Management Office.
The agency also reported that 58 people remain missing since the April 16 quake and 12,492 are injured. It also announced that almost 26,091 people remain in shelters.
Most of the deaths came from three towns in coastal Ecuador: Manta, Portoviejo and Pedernales, according to statistics provided by the office.
In an effort to boost reconstruction efforts, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced a series of financial measures, including a tax increase, on prime time television.
“Rebuilding the affected areas will take years and cost millions of dollars,” he said. “The short term costs are significant.”
He announced a raft of short-term and one-time tax measures, including a sales tax increase for one year. He also said that the government will sell some of its assets.
The news comes amid continued shaking in the South American nation. An earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.1 struck off the coast of Ecuador early Wednesday, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.
There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries from that quake, which hit 20 miles west of the coastal city of Muisne. That’s very near the site of the April 16 earthquake – the deadliest in Ecuador since a 1987 quake that killed 1,000 people.
The lesser earthquakes – 23 in all since the big one, according to the USGS – come as the country is trying to deal with its worst disaster in decades, Defense Minister Ricardo Patiño said Tuesday.
“We’re facing the most difficult phase right now, which is rescuing victims and recovering bodies,” Patiño said. “We’re removing debris, and we will very likely find more bodies. 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.
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.
Waiting, grateful to have survived
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.
Damage is everywhere.
“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 the 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.”
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.”