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Better prepared: Mexico's 7.4 quake causes damage, but no deaths

Mexico's worst earthquake in nearly 30 years was met by stricter building codes and a city prepared by evacuation drills and early warning systems.

By Staff writer, Correspondent / March 21, 2012

Residents stand next to a house damaged by an earthquake on Tuesday in the village of Paso Cuaulote, at the Mexican state of Guerrero, March 21.

Henry Romero/Reuters


Mexico City

By the time the powerful 7.4 earthquake rumbled in Mexico City Tuesday, the 56 students ages 6 months to 6 years attending the Montessori Kid's Place in Mexico City were already evacuated, gathered in the front lobby of the school, a location city engineers had earlier indicated as the safest spot.

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“For a few seconds, nothing happened, and we thought it might be a false alarm,” says Claudia Yañez, the school director. She had purchased two alarms last year, each the size of a book, which warns them of seismic activity in Guerrero state. If an earthquake over the magnitude of 5 strikes, an alarm sounds and a voice warns “earthquake,” as it did Tuesday, giving them a minute of time to implement the drills they practice monthly. The minute represents the time between the triggering of the radio alert at the remote sensor and the arrival of the seismic shocks to Mexico City. “This minute is very valuable,” Ms. Yañez says. 

Tuesday's earthquake was one of the strongest that residents have felt in the capital since the 1985 quake that killed some 10,000, and still haunts many. Nearly 30 years later, yesterday's quake caused damage but killed no one, according to public authorities.

The country was spared, in part, by the lesser energy of the quake and the way it hit. Stricter building codes have also ensured that homes and office spaces can withstand seismic activity better than in the past. But the city's preparedness, in the form of evacuation drills in schools, hospitals, offices, gas stations, and even in private homes has also evolved as a powerful preventive tool.

“The Mexican populace knows what to do when confronted with an earthquake,” says Mexico City's Civil Protection Secretary Elias Moreno Brizuela.“That was clearly demonstrated yesterday.”

Mexico City has professionalized its disaster response since the 1985 quake, and planning gotten even more attention under Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard. He raised the profile of the city’s “civil protection” department by making it a cabinet-level ministry in 2007. The ministry then created a detailed, six-point disaster-response program that spells out how each arm of government – in conjunction with private companies, including construction outfits that participate in reviewing damaged structures and hotels in the event that displaced residents need shelter – should react during a disaster.

Within seconds of Tuesday’s earthquake, the city set into motion its six-point plan. Six Condor helicopters took to the skies, one heading to pick up the mayor while the other five flew to their respective zones to immediately begin surveying damage across the immense metropolis of 20 million. Mayor Ebrard and Mr. Moreno Brizuela met at the city’s control center, where information was gathered and filtered from the city’s boroughs, various offices, and federal and state governments.

The earthquake struck at 12:02 p.m.. Sixteen minutes later, Ebrard tweeted that he was exiting the helicopter and within another 10 minutes had already communicated about the state of strategic services, the metro, water, electricity, and schools.

“As a government, we have advanced enormously,” Moreno Brizuela says.

Mexico City, which was built on a lakebed that amplifies the waves that radiate out from an earthquake’s center, has suffered worse fates during lesser or equally powerful earthquakes decades ago. In 1957, a 7.7 quake brought down buildings and the city’s iconic Angel of Independence monument. Seven hundred people died. In 1979, buildings crumbled during a powerful 7.9 tremor that also caused numerous deaths. In the 1985 quake, 400 buildings were damaged.

The damage of yesterday's quake is estimated at $100 million, according to risk-modeling firm Eqecat. But there have been no fatalities. It helped that the epicenter was situated in a sparsely populated region in southern Guerrero state. There, about 800 homes were damaged, officials say, including 60 that collapsed.


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