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Rain And Death In Ecuador

For the United States, El Niño has brought everything from icy cold temperatures to searing heat, torrential rains to unseasonable droughts. In January, the Texas Panhandle tackled winter storms, 70 mph winds were recorded in parts of California, and the Northeast was buried under inches of ice.

But if it feels like El Niño's fury is hitting hardest across the U.S., it could be much worse. El Niño's most dangerous and sustained impact is being felt on the doorstep of this huge and powerful weather mass in the Pacific Ocean, in Ecuador.

Here, like some biblical scourge, El Niño has brought an unfathomable amount of rain and death. Over a three-week stretch in January, flooding and mudslides killed 27 people. "For the last two months, we've been asking and asking God to pacify this terrible storm, " said Father Marco Perez in his native Spanish.

One woman recalls a baby found drowned in a house. "Someone opened the door and the baby was floating in the water," she said.

Along the coast, rains washed away mountainside shanties, floated caskets out of crypts, and caused fires in gasoline-laden floodwaters. El Niño has ruined millions of dollars of crops and left thousands of people homeless.

But what those in Ecuador really fear is that an already horrible situation is about to get much worse. January marks the beginning what in a normal year is Ecuador's rainy season. If meteorologists are correct, this small country--about the size of Nevada--in northwestern South America can expect the rain to continue through June.

For an already rain-drenched nation, that would spell disaster. "This was all rice-producing land," said Alberto Sanchez looking out at his farm buried in 10 feet of water. When Sanchez told his father he'd lost the whole rice crop, the elder Sanchez suffered a heart attack and died.

People here have learned to curse the rain. But the rain isn't the only recipient of Ecuador's anger. People are also upset with a government they say has been painfully slow in responding to this disaster. Newspapers run headlines questioning who is in charge.

Luis Carrera, head of Ecuador's El Niño task force, says that is unfair. He says the government is doing the best it can.

But, has the government underestimated the severity of El Niño?

"I think not," Carrera said. "It's not possible for my country to solve all the situations. We need help."

The world is beginning to answer that call. Last month the World Bank forwarded Ecuador an $85 million loan. But people here have little faith in the government's power. And with the oceanborne El Niño expected to stay hellish through March, many Ecuadorans believe divine intervention is their only hope.

Written by CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker. ©1998, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved

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