Back in 2013, I was in Mexico City for a work trip when the light fixtures started swaying in a ground-floor hotel restaurant. In the United States, we’re taught to find a sturdy table to crouch under, or a doorframe to stand in when the earth starts to tremble. So, I did just that, throwing my hands up against one of the hulking doorways of the 1920s building.
Seconds later, waiters and cleaning staff were running past me – in some cases crouching to squeeze through the space between my arms and the floor – to get outside. I looked around at the empty restaurant perplexed and a little amused, and decided I should probably follow.
But, this week, when Mexico City started jerking to a 7.1 earthquake, I was grateful for that lesson in local quake culture.
More than 40 buildings were toppled in Tuesday’s temblor, including one wing of a private elementary school. The death toll has reached more than 137 people in Mexico City alone, out of more than 270 nationwide. And in a city like this one, where many neighborhoods are built upon a squishy former lakebed, a building that survives one quake won’t necessarily make it through the next. Getting outside is the priority, even if there are other risks once on the street.
I rushed downstairs as my office began violently shaking Tuesday, meeting up with my daughter and her caretaker outside the front door. We held each other as we walked slowly down a tile pathway toward the building’s front gate, trying to keep our balance. The caretaker called out the Lord’s Prayer in a steady lilt and I peppered her with questions. “Is this big? Is this stronger than the last one?” I asked, referring to the 8.1 quake that rocked the capital just 12 days earlier while I was out of town. My 11-month-old daughter, thankfully, seemed oblivious.
Out on the street, we heard glass breaking, loud snaps, and watched, horrified, as a seven-story building around the corner bounced and swerved, throwing bricks from its façade. The structure didn’t fall, but apartments were visible through the broken walls.
A group of construction workers gathered with us in the middle of the street – as far away from buildings, trees, and electrical wires as we could get – their arms wrapped around each other’s backs to form a human chain.
The moment the earth stopped swaying, the workers were off, like many around the city, jumping in to help trapped residents escape their damaged homes or clear rubble from fallen buildings. An older woman came walking down the street, leaning on a teenage boy, sobbing. “It was just like ’85,” she cried, taking stock of the buildings on the block. That was the year of Mexico’s deadliest earthquake, which left thousands dead and hundreds of buildings destroyed.
It was heartening to see people bolt into action. A trio of carpenters – grandfather, son, and grandson – working on a neighbor’s home rushed from one site of wreckage to another with their tools to offer help. Bicyclists, some with whistles, started directing traffic on a four-lane thoroughfare where stoplights had gone dark.
The day after the quake, volunteer turnout was astounding. Support centers were overwhelmed with donations of water, men and women slapped together simple sandwiches for volunteers, and crates of water bottles blocked sidewalks. Local restaurants and shops opened their doors to volunteers and displaced residents, offering water, meals, and other support. Some areas of the Condesa and Roma neighborhoods, where numerous structures fell or were deemed inhabitable, were so clogged with volunteers it was difficult to move through the street. As the day wore on, there were moments where the outpouring of support felt almost alarming.
Although official search and rescue teams, the Army, and firefighters are on the scenes of collapsed buildings, there is a distinct feeling that no one is really in charge. Rumors are flying of buildings on the verge of falling, with tape put up to block cars and pedestrians. But it’s unclear if these were decisions made by officials or eager volunteers. Guidance or explanations from authorities are scant, leading to misinformation, even if intentions are good.
Earthquakes have been on my mind since I moved here three years ago, in part because my partner likes to geek out on seismic activity. Before renting our first apartment, he studied maps of the 1985 quake destruction, and suggested we choose a building with fewer than six floors, because they respond better to the vibrations of temblors here. I guess it’s rubbed off on me, because I started asking about earthquake risk when making decisions here, too.
When interviewing surgeons for a throat operation I was met by surprised laughs when I asked what would happen if a quake hit mid-procedure. The carpenter who built shelves for our kitchen was dismissive when I asked her if we should put on cabinet doors so that dishes didn’t slide out during a quake. I don’t know if these reactions are indications of the normalcy of earthquakes here or a coping mechanism: we can’t always know what will happen until it happens.
But being a parent changes things. The everyday risks of letting your children grow and learn as independent people feel suddenly much higher after this week’s disaster.
A young girl known as Frida Sofia was believed to be buried under the rubble at the Enrique Rebsamen school in the south of the city, capturing the nation’s attention – and instilling waves of nausea in parents like me. She reportedly wiggled her fingers through the rubble on Wednesday, and rescuers worked around the clock to free her and five other students supposedly trapped there. By Thursday, however, authorities said they doubted “Frida” exists, or, at any rate, is trapped in the school.
My daughter won’t be going to school any time soon, but even so, this quake raises tough questions. How do you know the school you send your child to, or the home he or she goes to play in, is structurally sound? How do you know that building codes are truly met in a nation seeped in corruption, where a bribe can possibly get a building approved without actual inspection?
These aren’t pleasant things to think about. But, luckily, there are plenty of reasons to feel hopeful in the aftermath of this disaster. Mexicans have come together this week, helping and supporting neighbors and strangers alike. The solidarity is inspiring, whether it’s volunteers trying to coordinate rescues before officials arrived on the scene or men and women standing in the pouring rain Wednesday night, removing rubble in hopes of saving lives.
And, if the aftermath of the ’85 quake serves as any indication, this citizen unity could lead to concrete change in Mexico. That could mean pushing for stricter standards around building inspections or simply realizing that together, Mexican citizens are a powerful force.