On September 19th 2017, at around 1:15 pm, Mexico City was hit by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake, resulting in the worst damages to the city since the tragedy of the 8.1 earthquake of September 19th 1985. 48 hours after the earth shook, many people are still helping rescue those who are stuck under collapsed buildings.
The earthquake happened as I was having lunch in a food court with a colleague right next to my office, located in Polanco, an area with many high-end office and apartment buildings. We were talking about what we had done that previous weekend to celebrate the independence of Mexico. I come from France and have lived most of my life in Europe, which means I had never experienced an earthquake before coming down to Mexico and was not taught how to react to it. Two weeks ago, a very strong one (8.2 on the Richter scale) also stroke us as we were going to sleep – however, the most recent one, with an epicenter that was closer to Mexico City, just on the border of the neighboring states of Puebla and Morelos, felt a lot stronger and resulted in a lot more damage.
The lamps started moving, and immediately left our table to start exiting the building. We could hear glass shattering around us and lamps, screens and panels were moving very strongly above our head. In spite of the traditional instruction of remaining calm, people were shouting and running. I was very scared, because in spite of the few evacuation exercise I had taken part in, I did not really know what to do and where to go. My colleague remained very calm and took me by the hand, making sure we stayed away from glass doors of the surrounding shops and checking if anything was about to fall off the ceiling. We quickly went down from the first floor and went into the street. As this area is busy with shopping malls and corporative buildings, there were a lot of security people indicating us where to go and what to do.
The earth moved for about a minute – and then the worst part started. Ambulance and police sirens blasting everywhere. Helicopters flying over the entire city. Everybody on their phones trying to connect with their loved ones wanting to find out if everything was alright. There were so many people around there that the phone signal was on and off. It was impossible to call anybody. Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter were the most useful tools. The first thing I did was check on my boyfriend, who works 10 km away from my office. He would not tell me right there but admitted after that he really felt like his building was going to collapse. Pictures and videos started being published on Facebook, allowing us to get a grasp of how bad and strong the earthquake had been. This is one of the worst characteristic of such an event: getting pieces of information one by one, and not fully understanding what is happening. About one hour passed as we were waiting there with some colleagues. We were not allowed to go back up to our office to collect our things – security teams needed to check it first. After informing my family and friends back in France that I was alright and making sure that people I care about were safe, I decided to go home to check whether our building had collapsed or exploded because of a gas leak.
One particularity of Mexico City is that it was built on a lake, so a large part of the city center has very weak foundation – sand, really – where the earthquakes are felt stronger. There are also a lot of old buildings in these areas that do not respect earthquake safety standards. Luckily, I work in a zone – Polanco – where most of the buildings are brand new and respect those safety norms. On the other hand, I live in one of the neighborhoods that was hit the most – Roma/Condesa.
On the way home, I did not see any substantial damages in Polanco. The traffic was very dense, the metro was not running anymore, and most people just went back home walking. I kept on checking messages from friends and Facebook all the way, praying that everybody was fine and hoping our building had not collapsed. As I went through the Chapultepec Park, one of the largest urban park in the Western Hemisphere, I started seeing the first damages: some heavy sculptures had fallen on the ground. I then entered the neighborhood of la Roma, where I noticed yellow tape that had been placed by the police around the buildings where glasses or part of the façade had fallen down. There was no electricity. People were buying 10 litters bottles of water, preparing for a long night and a potential shortage of supplies. I finally came by our building, a 1930s construction that had already resisted the 1985 earthquake. It was still up and without apparent damages. I waited for a while before entering, talked with some neighbors, the custodian and went online to find out how to recognize signs that indicate a building is about to collapse. Maybe I was a bit paranoid, but better be cautious!
Everybody was not as lucky as we were, though. A video taken right after the earthquake from an upper floor of a building on Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico main promenade, showed a lot of dust, smoke and some fires starting in various neighborhoods of Southern Mexico City. Other videos showed the exact moment when some buildings collapsed, or how a fire station exploded in a huge blast. Around the city, several buildings collapsed while people were still in it, including some schools, trapping young kids under the ruins. Many volunteers are still looking for people they have not been able to contact yet: for instance, kids have been brought to different hospitals throughout the city and their parents do not always know where.
As information was bring spread, a lot of people spontaneously got together to remove the stones and debris so as to uncover living souls. Their efforts lasted all night long; posts on Facebook and Twitter were warning about current emergency situations so that people could gather to help or bring water and food or shovels and medicines for the rescuing teams. As traffic in Mexico tends to get chaotic, many people opted going on bikes and motorcycles to deliver items where it was most needed.
The situation was, and still is at the moment, very chaotic. A lot of information is circulating, sometimes contradictory, informing about places where help is needed. At the same time, we are asked to remain around where we currently are, so as not to create additional traffic that would prevent emergency services to run efficiently. One block away from our home, another building got seriously damaged. A huge iron fencing fell on top of a car. Several sides of the wall fell down. Breaches can be seen, which led us to think this building might collapse in the near future. Balconies also seem to have been ripped away and may fall at any moment. Some specialized teams are trying to remove the iron fencing and secure the building as I am writing these lines.
So far, it is difficult to get an accurate and ascertainable number of victims. Figures currently circulating indicate around 250 casualties and about 30 collapsed building. Nevertheless, as engineers were voluntarily revising buildings yesterday or advising people on basis of pictures they send, it is feared that hundreds of other buildings might collapse. Pictures that are being published in the media around the world do show an awful situation, and it is. Nevertheless, the 1985 earthquake resulted in around 30,000 victims and 50,000 destroyed buildings. Time will tell the costs in human lives and infrastructures of yesterday earthquake, but figures are not comparable. The city has done tremendous efforts to ensure that infrastructure would resist better and people would be more prepared if another event were to happen. Mexico City is one of the cities of the world with the most rigorous earthquake safety standards for construction. Skyscrapers seems to tangle dangerously as the earth is moving, but their flexible structure prevents them from collapsing. However, because of corruption, some constructors have been able to avoid these restrictions in new buildings, which makes them very vulnerable to these events. Sirens have been installed around the city so as to go off seconds before actual earth tremors are felt, giving time for people to exit their building or to find a safe place in case they cannot make it out in time, which is the case for many tall buildings around the city. Unfortunately, the alarm does not always go off at the same time around the entire city, due to the distance to the epicenter and to the difference in the ground´s consistency, which explains why some people did not hear it.
In terms of procedures, evacuation simulations have become a regular exercise. In particular, this is how one of the way the 1985 earthquake is commemorated, both as a way to remember and to teach people how to react. Lucky “coincidence”, many people, including me, practiced this exercise the same day at 11:00am, two hours before the actual earthquake. In big companies, employees volunteer to be part of teams that will give instructions and help people evacuate the buildings. In shopping malls or public buildings, security agents take over this role.
Technology is also playing a major role in how Mexico City inhabitants responded to this drama: contrary to 1985 where telephone lines collapsed and people were unable to contact their family and friends for long hours or days, people have been able to connect really fast through instant messaging systems. It was not possible to call, but texting services were working, and social media has proven useful to inform people on what was happening and were help was the most needed. Some major telecom companies have also provided a free Wifi access for everybody out in the streets in need of reaching out for help or just to inform where they were. Mexicans are praising the sense of cooperation that has spontaneously emerged, with people offering their homes as shelter for those who could not or did not feel safe in staying home that night, or any other kind of help. I for instance was one of those who decided to spend the night away from the disaster area, thanks to the hospitality of a friend. Doctors, veterinarians, civil engineers and architects have offered their services for free. Some companies are also helping: restaurants have been offering free meals, some hotels are letting people use their facilities for resting and showering, and hospitals are attending all of those who have been hurt – worth to be noted, in a country where medical care costs are extremely high and the best hospitals are only accessible to those with high revenues. Funeral houses are offering free services for those in the most tragic of scenarios.
The international community is also on its way to help: rescue services and engineers from Germany, Japan, Israel, Honduras or Switzerland among others have arrived to provide assistance and their expertise to the city. Some major companies and celebrities have donated funds to help during the rescue and the reconstruction of the city. Everybody is contributing as they can to help rebuild the city, but Mexicans have in particular one request for political parties and all politicians in Mexico, which constant corruption is being denounced more and more loudly by citizens. 2018 will see the presidential election, and many voices are starting to demand political parties to donate the funds dedicated to campaigning – and provided for by the government – to help reconstructing all the places that have been affected. We will have to wait for next weeks to see if political parties take the opportunity to act in a disinterest manner, which might help to restore their image.
Living here has been a dream of mine since a few years ago that I got to discover this amazing place that is Mexico City. One year ago, I was finally able to make it come true. However, since the beginning, my family and friends back in Europe have been worried about the classical risks we usually hear about from Mexico: crime, organized violence, corruption, among others. On top of this then came natural disasters. For the past two days, some people, including my mother, have been suggesting I should live somewhere else. But all places have their own risks, with stronger than ever hurricanes in the Pacific, nuclear tension in Asia, political repression in Venezuela or terrorists threats in Europe, to mention only those.
Being totally honest, I feel scared and I have not been able to sleep so well those past nights. When I came last year, I bought a two-way ticket with the return scheduled for September 22th – this Friday. My intention was to change it to a later date, but for a moment I did consider taking that flight on Friday. And then I remembered all the reasons that made me fall in love with Mexico in the first place: some of the nicest and considerate people I have met, luxurious nature, amazing landscapes, bright and sunny days, delicious food and fruits, and such a rich culture. Every morning I wake up, I am so grateful for being able to live my dream. There are indeed risks, and we do live in a place which is naturally flawed, but we are all hoping for things to go back to normal quickly, and that this disaster paves the way for improvements on many levels, like security standards in constructions, political accountability and hopefully a stronger and more conscious society.