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Moment that mattered: A 7.1 magnitude earthquake hits central Mexico

Volunteers and rescue workers remove rubble and search for survivors feared trapped in a collapsed building on Amsterdam Avenue in the Condesa neighbourhood of Mexico City, two days after the earthquake

Volunteers and rescue workers remove rubble and search for survivors feared trapped in a collapsed building
on Amsterdam Avenue in the Condesa neighbourhood of Mexico City, two days after the earthquake

I was reporting on a story in a graveyard when I felt the earth move,” says Julia Santibañez Escobar, an award-winning journalist and author who lives in Mexico City.  “Earthquakes are part of the landscape here so I wasn’t initially scared. I have a dark sense of humour and remember thinking that if I die here at least it will save money on transport costs. But the quake kept getting stronger and soon I knew that this time it was serious. Everything started to shake, I could hear the earth groaning then felt it shattering under my feet. Structures began to collapse; bricks fell from the graveyard chapel. I ran to the entrance where a cleaner was crying hysterically. One of the guards was hugging her and trying to help her, but he was panicking himself. It was hard to stay upright and not be thrown to the floor. The quake lasted for three minutes in total but it felt more like ten.”

The earthquake struck Mexico City only eleven days after a magnitude 8.1 quake killed almost 100 people in the south of the country, and exactly 32 years after one of the most devastating events in the capital’s history. On 19th September 1985, more than 5,000 people in Mexico City died and over 100,000 homes were destroyed by a 8.0 magnitude quake. “Every year on this date we hold a commemorative drill to remember the victims of 1985,” says Escobar, who was in the city at the time. “Everybody in Mexico City is supposed to evacuate their building as way of remembering that we live in a very vulnerable country. We all took part in this at 11am and just after 1pm the quake happened. It felt like a bad joke.”

Although this latest earthquake was less deadly than the 1985 disaster, which killed at least 228 people in the capital and over 350 nationwide, Escobar says this 7.1 magnitude quake felt more intense. “Earthquakes always hit downtown hard and I was desperately worried about my daughter, who was playing football there,” she recalls. “Phone and internet services went down for while but eventually I was able to learn that my close family were all okay. I wanted to get home to see if my house had survived but there was chaos on the roads. Everything was closed due to collapsed buildings and gas leaks and there were crowds gathering in the middle of streets, trying to understand what had just happened. It took my taxi driver a long time to get hold of his family. We hugged each other when I left the cab to walk the rest of the distance to my house.”

“It was moving to discover that I’m part of a society where people care for others”

She wasn’t home for long. “My daughter told me that she was heading back out to volunteer,” says Escobar. “It seemed unthinkable to stay home and do nothing, so I joined her. We met up with her friends in a district that had been badly hit by the quake around 5pm and we stayed until seven in the morning, working with first aid practitioners to collect and organise medical supplies.” Escobar recalls a sobering conversation she had with one of the ‘moles’, the rescuers who dug long tunnels to reach people. “He told me that he’d retrieved five people from a collapsed building but none of them had been alive,” she says. “He was walking back to the building when he turned to us and said ‘there are more than 40 people buried here, so please wish us luck.’”

Incredibly, some people were found alive in the rubble. “I heard one story about a lady who happened to have her cellphone in her hand when she became trapped so she sent WhatsApp messages to her husband and friends to tell them she was alive,” Escobar says. “She was able to describe her location and they found her. Social media was also really important for organising the volunteer efforts.”

As horrific as the earthquake was, Escobar believes that it united the people of Mexico City. She says that there’s normally a lot of division in her hometown over class and race, but that in the days after the quake people were able to reconcile their differences. “It was moving to discover that I’m part of a society where people care for others,” she says. “I think the experience of this earthquake has made me feel a bit more connected with my fellow humans. It also made me more proud than ever to be Mexican – it’s been a difficult time for the country, but it’s brought everybody together. It’s also made me incredibly proud to be a Chilanga, an inhabitant of Mexico City. Everybody was trying to do something. All day long people turned up to the disaster area to offer food and drinks to the volunteers and rescuers. I saw a sign in a beauty parlour that said: ‘Bring food and medicine and we’ll cut your hair for free’.”

After a week of volunteering, Escobar returned to work and her life returned to normal. But normality isn’t possible for the people who lost loved ones or were displaced. A month after the earthquake it was reported that thousands of Mexico City residents have been unable to return to their damaged homes and many have not received any of the financial aid promised by the government.

“A close friend of mine lost her house and she’s now staying with friends while dealing with all the slow-moving bureaucracy,” says Escobar. “The government offered accommodation to those who were displaced but these places are really uncomfortable – there’s nowhere to shower or wash your clothes.” She says that she cannot see many visible signs of recovery in the city. “Some of the buildings shattered in the quake are being demolished but other than that I don’t see much happening,” she says.

“After the 1985 quake the building laws in Mexico City were made stricter and construction companies had to make much more resilient buildings. What we’ve learnt from this earthquake is that in many cases these laws weren’t followed. There has been a lot of corruption. One day – and nobody knows when – there will be an even stronger earthquake in Mexico City, maybe over nine on the Richter scale. It’s important that we’re properly prepared for it.

Julia Santibañez Escobar is a journalist, writing professor, radio host and the author of six books.

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