When your building starts to shake, you have a fraction of a second to pause and assess the threat. There’s always an immediate onset of panic, but you still have time to consider whether it’s worth it to try to run out into the street. How violent are the tremors? How long will it take you to get outside? How likely is it that the ceiling will cave? In Mexico City, earthquakes are always a concern. The city has been shaken by at least 45 quakes with a magnitude of over 4.0 in the five years that I have lived here. I remember at least a dozen that was strong enough to make me contemplate evacuating.
In my first quake in 2012 I stepped outside of the first floor café where I was sitting on Alvaro Obregon Avenue in Colonia Roma Norte and looked up to see the electrical cables roiling overhead and the sidewalk jolting and jumping. Over the next few months, I learned to wait and assess the severity of the convulsions before deciding to run or look for shelter under a support beam. I remember one minor quake that I worked right through. I never even stood up. The shaking was brief and seemed inoffensive. One time in 2013 the floor started to fluctuate, interrupting a raucous party in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood. My friends didn’t run. They didn’t even turn off the music.
The fear of being crushed or trapped in a collapsed building is visceral but, at least most of the time, I think people actually see earthquakes as relatively innocuous. While schools and office buildings stage regular earthquake drills apartment buildings don’t seem to make earthquake training a priority. My building’s management has never organized any type of drill or information sessions about how residents should react to a quake. The risks from earthquakes always seemed like a secondary concern.
Heavy trucks passing by on the street outside sometimes cause my building to sway and shudder. A notable tremor will send the entire building swinging gently from side to side. Generally, however, some mild rocking is not enough to induce a panic. When the city shook on September 7, 2017, most of my neighbors seemed more annoyed than scared, trudging out into the street for a few minutes and then shuffling back in to go back to sleep. After so many false alarms and minor quakes, the evacuations seem more perfunctory than alarming.
In the 32 years since Mexico City’s devastating 1985 earthquake, which leveled over 400 buildings, damaged another 3,000, and killed over 5,000 residents, much of Mexico’s capital has been rebuilt. Central neighborhoods in the Cuauhtemoc District, one of the worst-hit areas in ’85, have seen a major inflow of new investment. August but unkempt older buildings have been gutted and reborn as formidable multi-story luxury apartment complexes, restaurants, and boutique shops. Despite the fact that neighborhoods in the highest risk area of Mexico City, trendy colonies such as Condesa and Roma, are built on a shifting, dry lakebed, a notoriously unstable foundation, locals assure themselves that the new steel-girded office towers and apartment buildings have been engineered to withstand the shivers that periodically shake the capital.
Likewise, residents are convinced that the old, ornate buildings with their sturdy, fortress-like walls have proven themselves worthy: they passed the test of ’85 and still stand today. There are still a few visual reminders; abandoned, structurally unsound apartment towers that should have been demolished three decades ago but persevere like cement zombies menacing the neighborhood’s busiest avenue. Mostly, however, these old edifices seem like relics from a past era rather than a warning about the future. There’s still some abstract fear of death and destruction but also a powerful rationalization about the tremors the city has withstood so far. The logic allows people to live in peace, while also instilling a sense of complacency.
But the devastating 7.1 magnitude earthquake on September 19, which killed nearly 200 people in Mexico City and flattened buildings in Roma, Condesa and other parts of the city, re-introduces tangible consequences to the split-second calculations people make when the ground starts to shudder. A new generation of residents in Mexico City has seen houses and schools collapse into piles of twisted wreckage and watched plates of heavy glass break free and smash on the sidewalk below. Thousands and thousands of young volunteers have gone out to do what they can to help with the frantic search for people imprisoned by the rubble. We’ve also seen buildings fall well after the initial shaking stopped. In one tragic case, an office building on Alvaro Obregon Avenue collapsed after the initial evacuation. Most of the people who were trapped had re-entered the building. Nearly 4,000 buildings have been reported to have structural damage. More may collapse over coming weeks. It may cost several billion dollars to repair the damage.
It’s the first time in three decades that a quake has been recognized as a national emergency rather than a just a frightening interruption. The corporate office towers along Reforma Avenue held up. Office workers on high floors ducked for cover and recorded terrifying videos showing how the structures shuddered and swayed violently. But some new construction did fail. Authorities are already investigating the case of one luxury apartment complex which was finished and occupied just a few months ago that partially collapsed in the quake. The builder is suspected of using sub-standard materials and may face criminal charges. In other cases, older buildings that collapsed in Condesa have been found to have sustained damage in the earthquake in ’85 but somehow passed inspections and remained occupied. Their owners and managers may face lawsuits soon. In any case, some residents of Roma and Condesa are already looking for new housing on the more stable ground. The quake might temporarily slow the recent boom in residential construction in the area but in the medium term it might actually accelerate the extant trend of renovation and gentrification as renters flee older, potentially friable buildings and developers continue to rehabilitate and rebuild the district.
Still, the images of damaged buildings and the thousands of volunteers who came out to help their neighbors after the September 19 quake aren’t likely to fade anytime soon. Mexico City has a new benchmark. Moving forward, when the city starts to shake people will stop and compare the convulsions to those they remember from 2017.
Coca-Cola, Google, AT&T, Apple, and Facebook have all each pledged at least a million dollars to recovery efforts. See here for a list of charities working to help with disaster relief in Mexico.
Courtesy of Forbes and credited to Nathaniel
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