The latest earthquake to send rumbles through Mexico City accentuated the gap between Mexico's high-standard building codes and their ineffective implementation.
On September 19, 2017, an earthquake struck Mexico City, culminating in the deaths of nearly 300 people and the collapse of 40 buildings. Nearly 4,000 buildings were declared severely damaged and are likely to be uninhabitable, officials said. Although 2017’s 7.1 quake was 30 times less energetic than the magnitude-8 event in 1985, its epicenter was much closer to Mexico City: 130km away compared to 400km. This distance explains the differing damage patterns between the two earthquakes.
After the earthquake that struck Mexico City 32 years ago, destroying close to 350 buildings and resulting in the death of 10,000 people, the country’s officials vowed to formulate a sensible building code that would prevent such destruction from happening again. Today’s building code is a result of decades of analysis and debate, which constituted one of the world’s most comprehensive codes regarding in an area of high seismic activity. However, the last earthquake, which struck on the same date as the dreadful 1985 commotion, showed that the challenges Mexico City faces in its capability to withstand the movements of the tectonic plates goes beyond the written word. The lack of effective mechanisms to ensure compliance remains a key issue. According to a 2015 study conducted by Dr. Eduardo Reinoso, a researcher specializing in seismic engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, 71% of the buildings that were fully inspected failed to meet a high threshold of compliance with the city standards, while 36% failed to meet even a lower threshold of compliance. Building inspections have essentially been outsourced to a network of private engineers, who are hired and paid for by the developers. This creates conflicts of interest that can undermine even the best standards, distorting the ultimate goal of ensuring the safety both of the future inhabitants of the building as well as anyone who lives near it.
The issues of outsourcing the inspection amounts to developers personally selecting inspectors to regularly work on their buildings, so that inspector is active, familiar, and is continuously busy. This problem escalates when the same inspector simultaneously has several projects. This means that they are not present at all phases of construction, leading to potential negligence.
A combination of corruption, negligence, and disregard for the building code within Mexico’s capital set the time for a problem that could potentially result in a new catastrophe. But Mexican officials have decided to investigate this issue and accept the wakeup call it implies. Arrests have been made, most notably the detainment of the attorney of Canada Building System, responsible for forging the permits that resulted in the deaths of two people caused by the collapse of a building in the prominent area of Condesa. Furthermore, Sergio Alcocer, a member of the Structural Safety Assessment Committee in Mexico, announced that the eight norms that constitute the building regulations as a whole will be reviewed by specialists, aiming to close possible legal gaps that facilitated the unlawful actions prior to September 19. The review will also include the incorporation of two new regulations, regarding a more thorough inspection of complex infrastructure—such as deep excavations, underground facilities, or projects to construct new skyscrapers—as a way to ensure future safety conditions. The “protection of life” principle guides Mexico’s building codes, which are some of the strictest in the world, and ensure that future buildings will comply with the law and provide the safety people expect in their homes, office buildings, and other infrastructure.
Beyond this principle, the monetary losses of noncompliance are also significant. Reparations for last year’s earthquake amount to more than USD1.95 billion; the quake reduced national GDP growth by nearly 0.35%, according to a Citibanamex analysis. If there is a silver lining in the human and economic losses of the latest large earthquake, it is that Mexico has the strong regulatory foundations to build strong literal foundations.
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