Green Economy

A Hard Lesson Learned

Earthquake strikes Mexico again

On the 32nd anniversary of the devastating 1985 earthquake, Mexico City was rocked once again. How did the city fare after decades of preparation?

Mexican volunteers take a short break from rescue efforts in the aftermath of the September 2017 earthquake

Unbound by seasons or predictable weather patterns, earthquakes are notorious for their sudden and unexpected nature. They catch people off guard, unleashing their indiscriminate fury on unsuspecting populations. This was not one of those times.

On September 7, merely 12 days prior to this week’s disaster, Mexico experienced an 8.1 earthquake off the coast of Chiapas. It was the country’s largest in over a century and resulted in dozens of deaths in the south. This added extra gravitas to the days and weeks leading up to September 19, when Mexicans commemorate the devastating earthquake of 1985. To mark its 32nd anniversary, Mexico City had even held a citywide earthquake drill merely two hours before the actual 7.1 earthquake struck.

Needless to say, earthquakes had been on the minds of most people in Mexico City, including my own. So on Tuesday as the ground began to violently shake and windows began to crack, the images of the 1985 earthquake that had been quietly marinating in my subconscious rushed to the forefront. For the first time, I became seriously interested in the history of my otherwise mundane office building. More specifically, I became interested in whether it was built before 1985 or after.

In many ways, the 1985 earthquake and the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional’s (PRI) response was a turning point for Mexico City and the country at large. Although the epicenter was located offshore and further from the capital than Tuesday’s quake, the devastation was catastrophic. Not only is most of Mexico firmly inside the notorious Ring of Fire, where, according to the US Geological Survey, over 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur, the city itself was built on top of a former lake. The underlying soil, still soft, exacerbated the shaking.

Conservative estimates of the death toll in 1985 begin at around 5,000 dead, while others place the total as high as 45,000. Over 400 buildings collapsed in the city center alone. Tens of thousands more were significantly damaged throughout the region.

The huge human and material costs were only made worse by the callous response from then-President Miguel de la Madrid. The already embattled president ordered a media blackout, and delayed nearly 40 hours before delivering his first public statement. He even initially refused international aid. The inadequate government response necessitated the mobilization of a large volunteer force to handle the bulk of rescue operations.

Although the PRI held onto the presidency until 2000, opposition to the party that had been simmering since the 1960s was significantly bolstered by newly united and emboldened grassroots organizations that sprang up to aid in the earthquake’s recovery.

Mexico’s earthquake readiness also received major wide-ranging overhauls in the bloody aftermath of the 1985 disaster. By presidential decree, the National System of Civil Protection (SINAPROC) was formed to create a more organized framework for disaster and risk management, thereby coordinating efforts from government agencies such as Protección Civil, the private sector, and volunteers. A crude seismic alert system was also established that eventually grew to become today’s Sistema de Alerta Sí­smica Mexicano (SASMEX).

Despite Tuesday’s epicenter being inland and not at sea, SASMEX was able to give the capital a 20-second warning.

Since 1985, construction regulations regarding earthquake readiness had also been significantly strengthened and, relative to Mexico City’s immense and often informal sprawl, enforced.

According to a 2011 study by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, an estimated 80-85% of buildings in Mexico City complied with construction regulations. Since 2004, Mexico City and participating states have conducted elaborate earthquake drills every September 19 that serve to both prepare the population and commemorate the disaster.

On this particular September 19, however, there would much more than just a drill. Alarmingly, we would have the chance to see how changes set in place since 1985 would play out in real time.

By the time the shaking subsided and we made it outside, the streets were teeming. After all, they had done the very same thing earlier that day, only this time it was not a drill.

Some were crying as they frantically and unsuccessfully tried to reach their loved ones over congested mobile networks. But for the most part, the street appeared to have survived the disaster without substantial damage. My initial reaction was one of relief, assuming it had been but a heightened scare.

Yet as we crowded around an elderly neighbor and his trusty radio—our phones still unreliable—the reports began to come in. Two buildings had collapsed in Condesa, another in Roma. An old factory in the center had been reduced to a pile of rubble. Gas leaks and small fires were reported around the city. Someone said a school had been flattened, but had no details.

Despite everyone’s best intentions, misinformation often flows as readily as information in times of crisis, and I hoped as much when hearing that latest report.

As the mobile networks began to stabilize, the improvements that had been made to the disaster management framework started to become evident. Information was quickly disseminated, both through official government channels and through social media; it was a far cry from President Miguel de la Madrid’s media blackout.

Disaster areas were quickly pinpointed through the government’s Risk Atlas online map, and publicly crowd-sourced pins were dropped and shared through Google Maps. In real time, volunteers and their organizers were able to tell where they were needed most.

In fact, there were so many volunteers that at one collapsed building site I saw in Roma, Protección Civil and the army were forced to turn away hundreds of willing bodies. Meanwhile, organizers were busy organizing transport to shuttle them further south to Xochimilco.

According to the Federal Electricity Commission, 3.8 million households throughout the country were without power after the quake, 92% of which were restored within the first 20 hours. By Wednesday, Protección Civil reported that over 2,600 people were in government shelters, as well as 34 dogs, six cats, a rabbit, an iguana, and a parrot.

According to mayor Miguel Ángel Mancer, at least 35 buildings collapsed throughout the city, in addition to many more in smaller peripheral towns. Altogether, thousands suffered significant damage. A state of emergency was declared in over half the municipalities in Puebla.

By Wednesday the official death toll had surpassed 270, including at least 21 children from the Enrique Rébsamen school. With search and rescue operations still underway, the total tally is bound to be even higher. Official damage estimates already exceed USD4 billion.

Though an immense tragedy, many of the lessons learned from 1985 saved countless lives.

Of course, much can still be done to prepare for the next earthquake, such as continuing to fight corruption in regulatory corner-cutting in the construction sector and extending the seismic alert system to better serve other vulnerable states, not just Mexico City.

On Thursday there were also reports of military units attempting to raze certain collapsed sites while volunteers were still searching for survivors, which had echoes of some of the darker episodes of 1985.

Fortunately, there should be plenty of time before Mexico City and its surroundings are tested again. With all the energy unleashed over the last two weeks, seismologists have said a third earthquake of similar magnitude in the near future is highly unlikely. For now, applaud the countless men and women involved in the decades-long effort to prepare the city, and the legions of citizens that once again stepped up when their city and country needed them most.

After an hour or so, the public alarms ringing out finally subsided. We could go back into our building and inspect the damage, fully aware that we’d emerged from this practically unscathed—something many more could not say.

As I climbed the stairs, an elderly neighbor called out to me. “Don’t worry, this building is very strong. It survived 1985.”