How prepared is Ecuador for a major earthquake? Not very, say some Ecuador's emergency management officials, who are reviewing emergency procedures that would respond to disasters similar to those suffered in Haiti. Peru and Chile in the last five years.

Ecuador lies on the eastern rim of the seismically active area known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, according the Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute. There have been at least 37 earthquakes of magnitude 7 or higher since 1541, when written records by the Spanish were first maintained, the institute says. The government estimates that more than 80,000 died as a result of those earthquakes.

It is important, officials say, to know the level of risk of the area you live in. For example, Manta is at a relatively high risk for a catastrophic earthquake whereas Cuenca is at relatively low risk. Countrywide, the area of greatest risk, says the institute, is the coast, particularly the area from Manta to the Colombia border, followed by the northern Andes including the cities of Ambato, Riobamba, Quito and Ibarra.

One of the six most powerful quakes in history struck the northern coast of Ecuador in 1906, killing 2,000 near Esmeraldas and sending a tsunami across the Pacific that killed hundreds more in Hawaii and Japan. The quake measured 8.8 on the Richter scale, equaling the recent quake in Chile. Another killer quake, measuring 7.3, hit a hundred miles to the south in 1999, devastating the town of Bahia de Caraques. Thirteren years later, many buildings in Bahia still show the scars of that quake and a number of larger buildings stand abandoned.

In the Andes, Riobamba, Ambato and Ibarra have been destroyed by large earthquakes in the 19th and 20th century while Quito has suffered serious damage on three occasions. Ambato is still rebuilding from a 1949 quake that registered 7.1 magnitude. 

"No area of Ecuador is entirely free from danger,” says Institute director Hugo Yepes, “but we know that some areas, because of geography, are in much more danger than others and that is where we need to focus our attention. Even though we put the Northern Andes in the same zone as the coast, the coast is actually much more vulnerable,” says Yepes. “Not only will the quakes there be of greater magnitude but because they usually occur offshore, there is a high risk of tsunamis.”

According to Yepes and the institute, the area least vulnerable to earthquakes, outside of the eastern Amazon, is the southern Andes. “In recorded history, Cuenca has not suffered a destructive earthquake and it has been more than 400 years since Loja has seen serious damage.”

Yepes explains that the southern Andes are older, more settled mountains and consequently see less seismic activity. “It is very important to understand,” Yepes cautions, “that all of Ecuador, including the southern Andes, is vulnerable and we must remain vigilant.”

Institute officials say that Cuenca has seen a number of earthquakes over the years in the 4.0 to 4.5 magnitude range, the most recent in 2008. "Since the Spanish arrived almost 500 years ago, Cuenca has probably not had an earquake above 4.6 or 4.7 magnitude," says Yepes. "This is why so much of its historic buildings remain intact."

Photo caption: USGS earthquake risk map for Ecuador.