From earthquakes to hurricanes, flooding to tornadoes, this year has seen no shortage of natural disasters. Each side of the country and countries far beyond the U.S., face to face with a fierce mother nature.
Hurricane Harvey hit august 25, as a category 4 storm, with winds of 130 miles per hour near Rockport, Texas.
Some places in and around Houston saw five feet of water that flooded, and in some cases, destroyed an estimated 200,000 homes.
Just days later, hurricane Irma began to form in the Atlantic. Two weeks after that, hurricane Maria. Both storms punishing Puerto Rico with life-threatening winds and flooding that turned streets into rivers.
Puerto Rican authorities estimate there is anywhere from 45 billion to 95 billion dollars damage to the island’s infrastructure.
And that was just the beginning.
17 named storms developed before the end of November.
It was by far the costliest Atlantic hurricane season on record, with a preliminary total of more than 368 billion dollars in damage.
But natural disasters come in many forms.
An earthquake in Mexico, a mudslide in Colombia, monsoon flooding in Bangladesh, wildfires in California. The list goes on and on.
So what does recovery and, more challenging, long-term recovery look like in the face of such devastation?
When the cameras turn away and the headlines change, life after a natural disaster can be heartbreaking – whether anyone is looking or not.
One natural disaster in South America, over a year ago, sheds unnerving light on the uphill reality of long term recuperation.
I spent a lifetime learning about Ecuador from my mom, a born and raised Ecuatoriana.
But it wasn’t until I lived there in 2016 that I really understood what it meant to have a deep love for another country and for its people.
Ecuador is a vibrant country – named for its location on the equator. It’s the smallest Andean country, positioned on South America’s pacific coast.
Ecuador has a population of 16.4 million mostly Spanish-speaking citizens. That’s smaller than the state of New York by roughly 3.5 million people.
“I love Ecuador because it’s the country where I was born, where I have my friends, and my life. It’s a beautiful country. What’s not to love?” asks Andrea Vallejos of Montecristi, Ecuador.
According to World Bank stats, 23 percent of the population live below the national poverty line. Many families I knew made a couple hundred dollars a month on minimum wage.
“The people are happy. Although we face many challenges, we try to stay positive,” said Vallejos.
For many Ecuadorians though life is simple and needs are few. People are happy living with what we might consider very little.
Geographically and geologically, Ecuador falls along the ring of fire.
“It’s a very large boundary and it encompasses many different tectonic boundaries,” said William Krugh, assistant geology professor at CSUB. “But together they all are referred to as the ring of fire because of all the volcanoes that ring the Pacific Ocean.”
The majority of earth’s fault lines fall along this ring.
“It’s that plate boundary where we have a lot of friction and a lot of stress developing and when that ruptures and breaks then that’s when we have a really large mega-thrust earthquake,” said Krugh.
In fact, 90 percent of all the world’s earthquakes happen somewhere along the ring of fire. But the danger of living along a fault line is a risk billions of people make.
“I’ve been living here in Ecuador for some 12, 15 years now,” said Petter Hermansson, a missionary with the covenant church of Ecuador. “I love Ecuador. I think it’s an amazing place – the people the openness, the way people care for each other.”
The culture, traditions, and unhurried way of life far exceed any fears geology might pose. Usually.
“Life is beautiful here in Ecuador,” said Natanael Hermansson.
My personal, life-long connection to the little country of Ecuador inspired my 6-month trip there in 2016.
Christy, Stevie, Tim, Abby – My brothers and sisters and I grew up on stories of Punta Blanca and the ocean, my mom’s childhood home. My grandpa’s love of fishing.
I spent time in Ecuador on short trips growing up, but never for very long.
So when I graduated college I knew the first thing I wanted to do was spend time getting to know my Ecuadorian family and learn about my heritage.
It was April 2016 and it was summer in Ecuador. Children were out of school, tourists were fueling the local economy, incredible waves filled the warm ocean, and the locals threw parties every night of the week.
But life is funny that way – everything can change in an instant. And in this case, it did.
“Brick and debris were falling on us but the fear was so big, that we couldn’t even feel it. I was shaking and yelling. I thought it was the end of the world,” said Nelli Catagua of Mejia, Ecuador.
A crushing 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Ecuador.
“It was awful, to see buildings fall and people being crushed underneath them. It’s something I’ve never seen,” said Abel Quimí of Perdernales, Ecuador.
“We heard people screaming. The lights went out. Everything was dark. No light. No water. Nothing.”
“In that moment I felt like we were all going to die,” said Mirella Zamora of Tarqui, Ecuador.
Some of the earliest reports claimed dozens had perished.
“We saw our neighbor with her grandchild and daughter-in-law all hugging, crushed under the rubble,” said Quimí.
By the end of the week, handfuls turned to hundreds.
“For me the most heart-wrenching thing to witness was families and neighbors digging their loved ones from underneath the rubble only to find out they were already dead,” said Rodofo Arce with Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe. “It was hard to conceive the pain and suffering they were going through.”