The death toll from Ecuador's massive magnitude-7.8 earthquake climbed to 233, President Rafael Correa announced Sunday.

The strongest earthquake to hit Ecuador in decades also injured at least 588, government officials said, although the numbers could go higher.

Correa declared a national emergency and urged Ecuadoreans to stay strong.

“Everything can be rebuilt, but what can’t be rebuilt are human lives, and that’s the most painful,” he said in a phone call to state TV before departing Rome straight for Manta.

Rescue workers work to pull out survivors trapped in a collapsed building after a huge earthquake struck, in the city of Manta, Ecuador early on April 17, 2016.
Rescue workers work to pull out survivors trapped in a collapsed building after a huge earthquake struck, in the city of Manta, Ecuador early on April 17, 2016.

The earthquake Saturday night toppled buildings, damaged roads and impacted cities hundreds of miles away from its epicenter near the small fishing village of Muisne. More than 135 aftershocks have been felt, according to Ecuador’s seismological institute.

Landslides complicated emergency workers efforts to reach some areas hardest hit. Many survivors were trapped beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings, as rescue workers try to pull them out.

"These are very difficult moments," said Ecuador's Vice President Jorge Glas, who had taken charge of recovery efforts until Correa returned from a Vatican conference. "We have information that there are injured people who are trapped (under rubble) in different districts and we are getting ready to rescue them."

The quake caused damage as far away as 300 miles south of the epicenter. In the port city of Guayaquil, an overpass collapsed on a car, killing the driver and seriously injuring the passenger, Colombian broadcaster Noticias Caracol reported. Several other buildings were damaged, and the roof of a shopping center in Guayaquil collapsed.

The government has deployed 10,000 armed forces plus an additional 3,500 national police officers to the regions that were hit.

Glas, in a televised address, said the death toll would likely rise.

"No Ecuadorian is alone," he said in a message on Twitter. "We are a strong ... nation that is united and will emerge stronger from this disaster."

The Ecuador quake comes after two powerful earthquakes hit Japan last week, killing at least 41 people.

Pope Francis, addressing the faithful in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, asked them to pray for those suffering in the aftermath of the Ecuador and Japan earthquakes. "May the help of God and of neighbors give them strength and support,” he said.

Map pinpoints the epicenter of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Ecuador that struck on April 16, 2016.
Map pinpoints the epicenter of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Ecuador that struck on April 16, 2016.

The National Polytechnic Institute's Geological Institute said the Ecuador earthquake is poised to become the strongest in that country since 1979, when a magnitude-8.0 quake occurred near Tumaco, Colombia, and triggered a tsunami. It's the deadliest quake to effect Ecuador since a magnitude-7.2 quake in March 1987 left about 1,000 dead, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Since 1900, there have been seven magnitude-7.0 quakes within 155 miles of the epicenter of Saturday's massive earthquake, according to the geological survey.

Saturday's earthquake could also be felt in northern Peru and southern Colombia. No injuries were reported there. A tsunami warning was issued Saturday night for the coasts of Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Peru, but that threat has mostly passed, the National Weather Service's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.

"There had been some small tremors going on for about two or three months, and I thought it was one of those but after about 20, 30 seconds it started to get really strong," Cristian Ibarra Santillan in Quito told the BBC. "And I grabbed my dog and I hid under the table. But then I realized that it wasn't going away so I just ran with him outside."

David Rothery, a professor of planetary geosciences at The Open University, northeast of London, told the Associated Press that the total energy released by the magnitude-7.8 quake in Ecuador was “probably about 20 times greater” than the magnitude-7.0 quake in Japan early Saturday.

The Ecuador earthquake began deeper underground than the recent Japan quake, which would have lessened the shaking on the ground. But Ecuador is experiencing a greater loss of life and greater damage to property than Japan, because of its less stringent construction codes.

Rothery added that “there is no causal relationship between the earthquakes in Ecuador and Japan,” the AP said.

Contributing : Steph Solis