JDC mobilizes Ecuador, Japan relief efforts


The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is organizing relief efforts in response to a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Ecuador that has killed at least 272 people and injured more than 2,500.

The New York-based JDC said in a statement released Monday that it has begun assessing needs and coordinating relief efforts with the Ecuador Jewish community and Heart to Heart International focusing on medical care, medical supply provision, and water purification efforts.

In addition to the group’s response in Ecuador, a $25,000 JDC grant for emergency supplies including food and non-food items was made to JDC’s longstanding partner, the Japanese humanitarian agency JEN, to aid people impacted by the recent earthquakes in the Kumamoto province.

“As devastating images from Ecuador surface, JDC extends its deepest condolences and joins our partners to deploy a speedy response that ensures relief to survivors at their greatest time of need,” JDC CEO Alan Gill said in a statement. “Our response in Ecuador, and in Japan, are proud expressions of the Jewish value of tikkun olam, repairing the world, and are fortuitous as we lead up to the Passover holiday when we celebrate our redemption from great odds. May all those impacted by these crises experience the same solace and strength that can be found in family and community.”

JDC’s disaster relief programs are funded by special appeals of the Jewish Federations of North America and tens of thousands of individual donors to JDC. The organization coordinates its relief activities with the U.S. Department of State, USAID, Interaction and the United Nations.

Donations for these efforts can be made at www.jdc.org/ecuador

Ecuador quake toll rises to 350; billions needed to rebuild


Ecuador's earthquake death toll rose to 350 on Monday as traumatized survivors rested amid the rubble of their homes and rescuers dug for survivors in the Andean nation's shattered coastal region.

More than 2,000 were also injured in Saturday's 7.8 magnitude quake, which ripped apart buildings and roads and knocked out power along the Pacific coastline.

Giving the new tally of fatalities from Portoviejo town inside the disaster zone, President Rafael Correa told Reuters he feared the number would rise even further.

“Reconstruction will cost billions of dollars,” he added.

The normally upbeat socialist president looked deeply moved as he chatted with victims during a tour of the shattered town in the South American OPEC nation, which was already suffering from the global slump in crude oil prices.

Further north, in the beach locality of Pedernales, survivors curled up on mattresses or plastic chairs next to flattened homes. Soldiers and police patrolled the hot, dark streets overnight while pockets of rescue workers plowed on.

At one point, firefighters entered a partially destroyed house to search for three children and a man apparently trapped inside, as a crowd of 40 gathered in the darkness to watch.

“My little cousins are inside. Before, there were noises, screams. We must find them,” pleaded Isaac, 18, as the firemen combed the debris.

Tents sprang up in the town's still-intact stadium to store bodies, treat the injured, and distribute water, food, and blankets. Survivors wandered around with bruised limbs and bandaged cuts, while those with more serious injuries were evacuated to hospitals.

GLOOM FOR ECONOMY

The disaster is dreadful news for Ecuador's economy, already forecast for near-zero growth this year due to plunging oil income.

The energy industry appeared largely intact although the main refinery of Esmeraldas was closed as a precaution. However, exports of bananas, flowers, cocoa beans and fish could be slowed by ruined roads and port delays.

Michael Henderson, analyst at risk consultancy Maplecroft, said Ecuador was less well equipped to recover than Chile where a 2010 earthquake caused an estimated $30 billion in damage.

“Whereas Chile's economy was rebounding strongly from the global financial crisis when its own earthquake struck, Ecuador has been slowing sharply recently as lower oil prices depress activity,” he said.

“But total damage to assets in dollar terms may be quite a bit lower than in Chile due to the smaller magnitude of the earthquake and the fact that Ecuador is a much poorer country.”

The quake could also play into political dynamics ahead of next year's presidential election.

The government's response seemed relatively speedy, with Vice President Jorge Glas – a potential candidate in the February 2017 vote – flying into the disaster zone within hours and Correa coming straight back from a trip in Italy.

But some survivors complained about lack of electricity and supplies, and aid had still not reached some areas.

With Ecuadoreans jittery about possible looting, armed men ambushed and robbed two trucks carrying water, clothes and other basics to Pedernales from Guayaquil, authorities said.

PRISONERS ON THE RUN

About 300 aftershocks have rattled survivors, who huddled in the streets, worried tremors could topple already cracked homes.

“We're scared of being in the house,” said Yamil Faran, 47, surrounded by about 30 people in a street in Portoviejo. “When … the aftershocks stop, we're going to see if we can repair it.”

Some 130 inmates in Portoviejo took advantage of the destruction and chaos to climb over the collapsed walls of the low-security El Rodeo prison. More than 35 were recaptured.

On Monday, people swarmed into the middle of Portoviejo in search of materials of value among destroyed buildings, including a social security office. Desks and papers lay strewn around as locals carried off aluminum window frames and cables.

“I have to take some advantage from this horrible tragedy. I need money to buy food. There's no water, no light, and my house was destroyed,” said Jorge Espinel, 40, who works in the recycling business.

About 13,500 security personnel were mobilized to keep order.

Some $600 million in credit from multilateral lenders was immediately activated for the emergency, the government said. Nearly 400 rescue workers flew in from various Latin American neighbors, along with 83 specialists from Switzerland and Spain.

Two Canadians were among the dead. Jennifer Mawn, 38, and her 12-year-old son, Arthur, died when the roof of their coastal residence collapsed.

Residents on the Galapagos islands, far off Ecuador's coast and home to numerous rare species, said they had not been affected by the quake.

The tremor followed two large and deadly quakes that have struck Japan since Thursday. Both countries are on the seismically active “Ring of Fire” that circles the Pacific, but the U.S. Geological Survey says large quakes separated by such distances would probably not be related.

Wiesenthal officials ask Ecuador to intercede for Alan Gross


Officials of the Simon Wiesenthal Center met with Ecuadorian authorities to seek their support in asking Cuba to release American prisoner Alan Gross.

The meetings came on the sidelines of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's Latin American gathering of Jewish communities in Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

Sergio Widder, the Wiesenthal Center's Latin American director, and Dr. Shimon Samuels, its director of international relations, in separate meetings with Ecuador's deputy justice minister, Carmen Simone Lasso, and the Justice Ministry's legal adviser, Marco Prado, requested “the humanitarian intervention of Ecuador — in view of its close bilateral relations — to urge the Cuban authorities for an early release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross.”

Widder told JTA that Lasso did not comment on future steps regarding the Gross case. Lasso expressed her support for Holocaust education in Ecuador, he said.

Gross, 63, of Potomac, Md., was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for “crimes against the state.” He was arrested in 2009 for allegedly bringing satellite phones and computer equipment to members of Cuba’s Jewish community while working as a contractor for the U.S. Agency on International Development.

“We believe that President Rafael Correa Delgado is best-placed to convince Havana to make a humanitarian gesture,” Samuels and Widder told Ecuadorian officials.

On Sunday, more than 500 rabbis urged the release of Alan Gross, citing the possibility that he has a cancerous growth, based on a recent assessment of his medical records by a U.S. radiologist.

Also, the Wiesenthal Center expressed its concern at the growing influence of Iran in Ecuador and its ALBA bloc partners of Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

“This represents a potential danger of Iranian-supported Hezbollah terrorist networks abusing Ecuador’s hospitality as a springboard for expansion throughout South America,” Samuels said.

ALBA is an international organization based on the idea of social, political and economic cooperation among Latin American and the Caribbean countries.

Body of Munich man found in Ecuador river


The body of a 21-year-old Jewish man from Munich was found by residents of a town along Ecuador’s Pastaza River.

Family spokesman Marc Schmerz announced the death of Jonathan Simon on Facebook Aug. 13, saying “Unfortunately we have to announce that JonathanĀ“s dead body was found tonight.” Rescue and recovery teams had searched for several days.

Simon, whose family lived in Munich and in Israel, reportedly fell off a footbridge while crossing the river near Devil’s Cauldron waterfall on Aug. 6. The body is to be sent to Germany.

Israeli rescue specialists had joined in the search last week, flying in with Simon’s parents.

A massive plea for help in locating Simon had been launched Aug. 9 on the Internet. The website of the Jewish community of Munich posted the announcement as well.

Thousands of people had joined the Facebook group “Missing – Jonathan Simon – Missing,” and by Sunday hundreds had responded to the news.

The website that the family set up to keep friends and family informed announced that the body of “Jonathan Noach Ben Ronit Simon” had been found.

“The purpose of human life is to serve, show compassion and the will to help others,” the family’s statement read in part. “Jonny would be astonished to see how many people—family, friends and many strangers—have come together and put their personal matters aside for this cause. You have been in the minds of thousands the last week and you will never be forgotten.”