The Earth Shakes in Ecuador

Ecuador sits uneasily on a tectonic fault line. A catastrophic quake leveled the provincial city of Ambato in 1949. But temblors close to Quito like those of August 13th and 14th are rare occurrences. The last instrumentally-recorded event there was in 1990, and to go beyond that one would have to consult documents from the 19th century. With so little experience to rely on, Quiteños seemed at a loss to explain these seismic events.
For a better understanding, I went right to an unimpeachable source, cab drivers. Riding to dinner on the 13th, I learned that quakes are correlated with the weather. “It’s the humidity,” one driver assured me. The next day more sinister attributions came my way. “In your country they predict earthquakes, don’t they?” My negative response produced only disbelief and suspicion. In an attempt to disengage, I thought of other topics, like the Ebola outbreak. “You know how to predict that, too, don’t you?” I asked the driver to drop me at the next corner. Walking half a mile to my destination seemed a small price to pay.
Newspapers on the morning of the 14th pictured enormous dust clouds, the most prominent feature visible from the city center. From closer up came accounts of landslides, highway closures and the tragic death of a six-year-old, crushed by a fifty kilogram sack of rice that fell from a shelf in the family bodega. That afternoon the government dialed up a fierce charm offensive. President Correa and several functionaries made television appearances to laud disaster response and to point out how their preparedness had saved lives. They made no mention of the six-year-old.
Then at 11PM another quake– or perhaps an aftershock, accounts varied– shook the city. I was fast asleep but awoke long enough to look for my shoes in case the hotel ordered an evacuation. Two consecutive days of temblors clearly
worried people. “I’m not afraid” one bystander confided, ”but I’m wondering.”
I have lived and traveled in the Andes regularly since 1968, and this was my first experience with a seismic event. Quake and temblor, the expressions most often used to describe the phenomenon, now seem to me misapplied. Rather than trembling or quaking, the buildings I was in gently swayed, back and forth. Nothing fell from the shelves, no one ran into the streets, no sirens wailed. But movement was palpable, 5.1 on the Richter scale.
On the 15th terra firma returned. I left town that night with a group of tourists fresh from the Galapagos Islands. They hadn’t heard a thing.