MANTA, Ecuador - By dawn the extent of the damage to the city of Manta became dramatically clearer in the aftermath of a powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck late Saturday off the coast of Ecuador.
Collapsed and cracked buildings scattered the landscape, including large hotel buildings in this bustling provincial city of 200,000 people. The streets were deserted as aid trucks passed by transporting mattresses.
The South American country's main port city, dubbed the Gate to the Pacific, was left in chaos without electricity or water, long lines at gas stations and people receiving food from battered supermarkets.
Manta was the first city visited by Ecuador's President Rafael Correa after he rushed back home at the weekend from a trip to the Vatican. The grim picture gets worse approaching Pedernales, the epicenter of the earthquake that took on the appearance of a war zone.
Canoa and Bahia: worst affected
The road to the resort town of Bahia de Caraquez was torn up in several places making it impassable to regular traffic recalled another strong quake 18 years ago that struck this coastal area. The local economy was slow to recover then, though the memories of it had begun to fade.
"That year '98 was tough, but nothing prepared us for this," said Marcela, a resident of Bahia. "What are we going to do? I dont know. We have no idea what will happen," she added.
The Miguel H. Alcivar Hospital, rebuilt after the 1998 earthquake, collapsed again on Saturday. Patients were moved to a nearby prison guard training facility.
According to local authorities, 75% of Bahia was destroyed, though information was scarce. Many residents moved to a nearby community until their homes could be assessed, while others were forced to sleep in the open.
Many worried about an uncertain future recalling the years it took to recover form the 1998 catastrophe.
Bahia is more accustomed to welcoming foreigners who retire or set up businesses here, like Hugo Jimenez, a chef who came from Peru five years ago. "I have to leave, because it's going to be tough, nobody expected it," said Jimenez.
In Canoa, a beach town a little further up the coast, the picture was even worse. Aid only began arriving Monday.
The city has no hospital or morgue. By late Monday only 20% of the damage had been assessed and 23 bodies were found in the rubble. The unidentified corpses were placed in the central park waiting for someone to arrive to recognize them and bury them. In case no relative or acquaintance comes forward, a mass grave was being readied in the cemetery to bury them.
It wasn't so bad in Canoa in 1998 because most buildings were small and low in height. Its popularity as a tourist destination in recent years led to the construction of several high rise hotels and hostels; many of them destroyed in the earthquake, with victims still buried under the rubble.
Next to a damaged church, Amarily Murillo, one of the survivors, was hoping for word on relief supplies. "I was left with nothing," she said, explaining that she had slept by the church. Her only sustenance in the last 48 hours was a glass of milk.
Despite being largely unprepared for the disaster Ecuadoran authorities were not slow to mobilize. In Manta, Bahia and Canoa the streets were full of fire-fighters, doctors, vets, and volunteers from all over the country.
Foreign Minister Guillaume Long said on his Twitter account that 654 international experts and rescuers has flowjn into the country. More teams were arriving daily "The cooperation from all over the country and the world exceeds expectations," he wrote.
Support from the private sector and from civil society was swift and local municipalities sought to ease concerns in the affected areas. The first plane arrived from Quito on Sunday night with 7,000 kilos of dry cargo, medicines and 60 doctors. The airline, Tame, made available planes and crew to transport the wounded from Manta to hospitals in the major cities of Guayaquil and Quito.
In 2011, the Geophysical Institute of the National Polytechnic School of Ecuador published an article asking if the country was prepared for a major disaster similar to an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 1906 that caused major damage in Esmeraldas province of northern Ecuador and southern Colombia. Given the rapid and poorly planned urbanization of the country, the article warned the effects could e far worse.
Five years later the catastrophic answer is now evident.