Becoming Cuenca

Earthquakes Are a Rarity, But…

Apr 1, 2023

“The lives of all these people are devastated when a major earthquake rips through Los Angeles and reduces the city to ruins.” ~IMDB

How many of you remember that horrible 1974 movie? Rotten Tomatoes said, “The destruction of Los Angeles is always a welcome sight, but ‘Earthquake’ offers little besides big actors slumming through crumbling sets.”

Mark Robson’s “Earthquake” is clearly far from the best of its genre that were released in the 1970s (though the spoof “Airplane!” is in a class by itself). The movie was a critical disappointment when it came out, and one critic went as far as to assign a “Bomb” rating.

Why do I mention this movie with stars such as Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Genevieve Bujold, and Richard Roundtree? It would seem it has nothing to do with Cuenca, Ecuador.

Los Angeles is a long way from Cuenca, and it is in another country. What happened in Cuenca on March 18th is what reminded me of that cheesy movie.

These are just two of the headlines for what happened on that date. You may have not heard about it as it was basically the international media covering it. As you can see, these headlines are from news outlets in England. And the photos for the articles are of Cuenca.

My oldest son, who lives in Philadelphia, said to me it was not even on the radar in the American media. That is not surprising to this journalist of four decades as the American media barely – and I mean barely! – covers the news outside of the United States.

This is one reason I am mentioning it in my latest blog post. Craig D. Lounsbrough said, “Any road not informed by the past will certainly be an uncertain one.”

As you consider living in Cuenca, I would like you to know about the “past” to understand what faces you in the future.

The image above is from El Instituto Geofísico de la Escuela Politécnica Nacional. Think of it as the Ecuadorian version of the USGS. This institution monitors volcanoes and earthquakes, which are many times interconnected.

Their website, https://www.igepn.edu.ec/portal/eventos/informes-ultimos-sismos.html, is one I highly recommend you follow. That website provided me the following information about the March 18th earthquake:

 

Magnitude: 6.8

Time: 03-18-2023 at 12:12:52 EST

Location: 2.837° South and 79.844° West

Distance: 43 miles west of Cuenca and 40 miles south of Guayaquil

Depth: 40.9 miles

 

El Instituto Geofísico de la Escuela Politécnica Nacional did not provide me the distance from those two cities, but I measured the distances based on the coordinates for the epicenter.

Devised in 1935 by American seismologist Charles F. Richter, earthquakes are measured by their intensity. It is determined from the logarithm of the amplitude of waves recorded by seismographs.

Now, before your eyes glaze over with the math, I will just say that earthquake measurements are a base 10 logarithmic scale. Each increase of one unit on the scale represents a 10-fold increase in the magnitude of an earthquake.

That is all you really need to know about how the earthquake scale works.

Cuenca experienced a magnitude 6.8 earthquake, which is described as “may cause a lot of damage in very populated areas.” Seismologists say there are about 100 of these earthquakes every year worldwide.

The March 18th earthquake was just short of a 7.0, which is a “Major earthquake. Serious damage.” There are 10 to 15 of this magnitude every year in the world.

To put all of that into perspective, the recent and deadly earthquake, which hit near the town of Gaziantep, Turkey, registered as a 7.8 on the Richter Magnitude Scale.

The photo above was taken by me on Calle Mariscal Sucre, near Calle Tarqui. Joanna and I as well as our friend from Philadelphia arrived at the deadly scene three hours after the earthquake.

Due to the tremor, the façade of a historic building in El Centro fell on the car of 52-year-old John Henry González Vera. He was the father of five children and worked with his wife as a clothing merchant at Plaza de San Francisco.

González was the only death in the city of Cuenca. The second fatality in Azuay province was a 45-year-old man who got out of his car to remove rocks on the Cuenca – Molleturo – Naranjal road (the main route to Guayaquil) that were blocking his way. More rocks from the mountain came down, killing him.

Despite the strong earthquake, all the buildings are standing. Two of the older ones on this block had damage. One building had part of its exterior wall shaken off. The other building appeared to have lost its stone balcony. That is what hit the car below.

In just three hours, our city’s “Green Team” almost had the street cleaned for vehicular traffic to resume. Our Philly friend remarked that she was impressed by what they had done.

Many of you have never experienced a strong earthquake. My wife, Joanna, had never been in anything like the strong one on March 18th. Everything she had experienced in North Carolina was 3 to 4 on the Richter Magnitude Scale.

What my wife experienced is about 1,000 times more powerful than anything she ever encountered.

I vividly remember the April 29, 1965 earthquake in Seattle. It was a magnitude 6.7 that had my home’s wood floors rippling like water. I could see through the floor as the earthquake was going on. It was just days before my seventh birthday thus I had nightmares for several years because of it.

For many expats in Cuenca, it was a scary experience. Some have never experienced an earthquake. An American woman posted on Facebook, “Was that an earthquake?”

Texas is not known for earthquakes. A couple we know from the Lone Star State said to me that day, “It was indeed scary. We still feel a little ‘shaky’ inside.”

New York City is another place not known for earthquakes. A woman we know from the Big Apple moved to Cuenca three decades ago. She said to me, “You should have seen my house ‘shivering.’ It was petrifying. In all my years here, this was the worst quake ever (besides 2016, that is).”

She is referring to the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Manabí province on April 16, 2016. It claimed the lives of 663 people, injured 6,274, and displaced 28,775 residents in coastal Ecuador.

In February, the Associated Press compiled a list of the world’s 17 deadliest earthquakes in the past 25 years. The Manabí earthquake did not make the list.

When Joanna and I visited Bahía de Caráquez (Manabí province) two years ago, there were several buildings that had not been touched since 2016. It was very evident in parts of this city, that is 285 miles / 460 km. from Cuenca, that they were never going to be torn down and replaced anytime soon.

And to this day, real estate prices in parts of Manabí province remain depressed.

Even seasoned vets of earthquakes became unsettled. A woman, who lived in northern California (which has had many strong earthquakes), told her family, “It was scary as hell! I was afraid our building was going to come down. It was a long and very strong quake.  I seriously thought the building might come crashing down. We had only a few small items break. But my heart was pounding for at least two hours, waiting for aftershocks.”

So where are most earthquakes in Ecuador?

Seismologists, who assess the risk of earthquakes, say Esmeraldas province, on the northwestern coast is particularly high because of its proximity to the convergence of the Nazca and South American tectonic plates.

The Andes mountains run the length of the west coast of South America. They are world’s longest mountain range with a length of over 4,350 miles / 7,000 kilometers. The mountains have been formed as a result of the South American plate being folded upwards, crumpled, and folded.

Outside of El Centro, there was some damage.  Our departamento did ‘not’ sustain any visible damage from the earthquake. Far from being an engineer, I think that it may be due to us being in the corner of our building and on the ground floor.

Unfortunately, the apartment we are renting out did not fare as well. It is in the same complex where we live. That apartment is on the ground floor, but in the middle of the building. There are numerous cracks in the walls, and one of the sliding glass doors no longer slides.

In the photo above, you will see the American couple, who are renting our apartment. They are standing in front of the sliding glass door that no longer slides. If you look up above and behind the husband, you will see where two huge pieces of slate had fallen off of the façade of the building. Thankfully, they did not hit him, who just moments before the earthquake struck was outside on the terrace.

The couple is from Idaho, and the worst quake they ever experienced was a 6.1 on the Richter Magnitude Scale. Cuenca’s earthquake was 7/10 of a point higher. That may not sound like much, but it means that the earthquake was seven times stronger than what they had experienced. Needless to say, they were literally shaken by the earthquake.

Joanna has a very good friend on the sixth floor of our building. She told Joanna her departamento was swaying. That is good as that prevents a potential catastrophe.

When the ground beneath a building shakes, it makes the building sway as the energy of a quake’s waves moves through it. You might think that a skyscraper would be more dangerous than a smaller office building, but in fact, the opposite is often true.

The taller a structure, the more flexible it is. The more flexible it is, the less energy is required to keep it from toppling or collapsing.

When planning the seismic resistance of a building, engineers must design the support elements of shorter buildings to withstand greater forces than those of taller buildings. The builder of our eight-story building claims it can withstand more than what we experienced.

Frankly, I hope to never find out if what they stated is correct.

Unfortunately for my wife’s very good friend, she lost a couple of beautiful Bolesławiec dishes. We told her that we are planning to go to Europe in September and that we have Bolesławiec, Poland on our itinerary. Our goal is to bring back two replacements for our good friend.

One last thing about earthquakes: Aftershocks. While most aftershocks are smaller than the original earthquake, they can still be damaging or deadly. USGS says a small fraction of earthquakes are followed by a larger earthquake.

According to the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), the number of aftershocks will almost immediately occur after the original earthquake. The aftershocks will gradually decrease over time. JMA adds, “The number of aftershocks will decrease to approximately the one-tenth in 10 days whereas one-hundredth in 100 days.”

If you look at the graphic above from El Instituto Geofísico de la Escuela Politécnica Nacional, it shows five aftershocks. I say this because the Lat-Longs are very close to Cuenca’s big earthquake.

Column four shows that these aftershocks occurred at 12:22 p.m., 12:55 p.m., 3:44 p.m., and two at 6:33 p.m. All of these happened on the same day as the big earthquake.

The magnitude of each aftershock is in column two. The very first one was the strongest, but its force was over 100 times less strong. For many people in Cuenca, it was not felt. Joanna and I certainly did not feel it as we walked to El Centro.

As for the other four aftershocks, the force of them was about 1,000 times less than the big one at 12:12:54 p.m. Since then, aftershocks have not been recorded.

Despite how scary all of this may sound, the earthquake death in Cuenca may be the first in 500 years. To me, those are very good odds that being killed by an earthquake are basically zero.

On top of that, it has been said that Cuenca sits on an inactive faultline. Cuencanos will tell you that the fact there are so many patrimonial (historic) buildings standing is evidence that earthquake activity in Cuenca is minimal.

Let’s be fair about earthquakes. Natural disasters can happen anywhere. As my wife said to me the other day, “No one is isolated from natural disasters. It can be an earthquake, a hurricane, a tornado, or even flooding.”

And as our good friend, Gil, who has lived in Cuenca for about a dozen years said, “This was probably the worst earthquake jolt in Cuenca’s recorded history, hopefully unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.”

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigos.

 

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.