Charity's fears for Ecuador children after devastating earthquake


Fears are growing for thousands of vulnerable children caught up in the devastating earthquake in Ecuador which has flattened buildings and killed hundreds.

More than 260 people died and a further 2,500 were injured in the powerful quake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, the strongest to hit the country since 1979.

According to the latest figures 262 people lost their lives in the quake. Vice President Jorge Glas said they expect the number to rise.

An official said there was a long list of missing people that authorities are looking for, but declined to disclose the number.

Plan International, which has a UK branch, has been operating in Ecuador for over 50 years - working with 50,000 children in more than 1,000 communities.

Veronica Zambrano, who is based in Quito, has worked with children for the past 35 years, and with Plan for the past four. The charity aims to end poverty among youngsters.

The 54-year-old said she felt the earthquake strike and described it as "not a strong movement, but a very long movement - that lasted for a few minutes".

She said: "We knew something really bad was happening."

The US Geological Survey said the shallow quake that hit on Saturday evening was centred 16 miles from Muisne in a sparsely populated area of fishing ports popular with tourists.

A state of emergency has since been declared in six of Ecuador's 24 provinces - with 10,000 armed forces deployed and 4,600 national police sent to the towns near the epicentre.

Homes, buildings and roads have been reduced to rubble - with more than 70% of the town of Pedernales, a town of 40,000, destroyed.

"The most important problem in Ecuador is that our infrastructure, especially in the rural poorer areas, is very, very vulnerable and very, very affected," said Ms Zambrano.

She told the Press Association that she is particularly worried about the houses in the poorer areas, especially after looking at pictures of the state some of Manta's well-built tourist hotels are in.

"Plan International works in the most excluded areas - we do not have all the information about our sponsored children," she said.

"This is because there is no way we can go into these areas because the roads are affected and collapsed."

In the smaller poorer towns Ms Zambrano said there are no facilities for medical treatment - with electricity, water and communications currently impacted by the quake.

Ms Zambrano said Plan are now working tirelessly to get access to the children and vulnerable people in the most rural areas, and to assess the extent of the damage.

She said it will "absolutely" take a lot of time to get to the people that need help.

"Just thinking about what will happen in our rural areas, that really worries me because the pictures we have seen are terrible," she said.

"These houses are just built from blocks - they do not even have columns. Some of them by the sea are just built out of sugar cane, not even brick or concrete."

She said they have been teaching the children about risk management, focusing on what can happen in their communities, and how to deal with problems that arise.

Ms Zambrano said she hopes the children "apply the principles they have learned".

"It is very difficult because we do not have access to them," she said tearfully.

"Manabi province is home to our biggest programme, we have 10,000 children there. I am just thinking of them and hoping they apply what they have learned."

On Sunday Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond tweeted: "Thoughts are with #Ecuador and those affected by earthquake. FCO staff in Quito working with local authorities."

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said they were in touch with local authorities and "stand ready to provide assistance to any affected British nationals".

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