Two Deadly Mexican Earthquakes, Two Starkly Different Responses
On September 19, 1985, at 7:17 a.m., Mexico City was hit by a deadly 8.1 magnitude earthquake that left thousands dead.
On September 19, 2017 at 1:15 p.m., just over two hours after conducting a national earthquake drill to commemorate the 1985 quake, another deadly earthquake struck Mexico City. This 8.1 magnitude quake, whose epicenter was located about two hours south of the city, demolished dozens of buildings and killed over 200+ Mexicans. According to my cousin Gerardo who was on the 13th floor of a sky rise, not only was the building rocking, he witnessed “dozens of plumes of dust, like bombs had been dropped in an air raid, all over the city as buildings began to collapse.” As soon as I heard the news, I reached out to my cousins. It took two hours to hear from them, but they finally reported in that they were ok. I immediately began to formulate a plan to get down there as quickly as possible to see if there was anything I could do to help out. I enlisted the help of my courageous sister, Crista, to see if she’d be willing to accompany her crazy brother. Without hesitation, she signed up!
We landed in Mexico City about 2:00 p.m. on Friday September 21st. Our cousin Gerardo picked us up from the airport. Even before landing, we began to receive reports that there was an over-abundance of aid in Mexico City, and that we would likely would be turned away. Having just returned from helping in the Harvey aftermath, I found that hard to believe, either way, it was too late to turn back. We quickly surveyed some of the major points of devastation and sure enough, not only were professional search and rescue teams from Mexico on site (including teams from Japan, Israel, and US Aid) conducting rescue operations, there were literally lines upon lines of Mexican citizens waiting to volunteer. I was surprised to see that the majority of the willing volunteers were young adults. On top of that, everywhere you looked there were "Centros de Acopio" – designated locations such as stadiums where people could take donated goods. The Centros de Acopio had literal mountains of food, toiletries, medicine, and water. Wow!
Our first order of business was to check on our family’s well-being. Since they were doing great, the next course of action was to enlist them in our quest to help anyone in need, especially in small town (“pueblos”) that were off the beaten path. Our team grew to five, one of which is a doctor and another a medical student. We began to investigate and analyze where the greatest needs may be found. We soon learned that the town of Atlixco in the state of Puebla was hit hard. Atlixco, about two hours south of Mexico City, would be our first destination in the morning.
On Saturday, September 22nd at 7:50 a.m., the alarm went off. Not my gentle phone alarm with my favorite nature sounds that slowly get louder to raise me from my peaceful slumber, the kind of alarm you don't want to hear - the city's earthquake alert system. Within seconds I jumped out of bed, but my boots on and joined the entire block that had already poured into the streets. Some folks clearly didn't have much time to put much clothes on. We quickly learned that another 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck in the state of Oaxaca (about 6 hours south of the Mexico city). While I didn't feel the aftershock too much, the power lines swayed for at least two minutes.
After waiting about twenty minutes, we went back inside to prepare for our trip to Atlixco. When we arrived, the effects of the earthquake were immediately visible. Several buildings had been damaged, including several broken "cúpulas" (church domes). In addition to the damage we saw, we immediately noticed a restaurant in the town’s main plaza that had been converted into a volunteer outpost. Dozens of volunteers were cooking food and preparing "tortas" (like a hogey) for other volunteers and workers who were assisting in debris removal. Christa met a nurse by the name of Eunice who was volunteering as a cook (there was no more need for medical personnel). As soon as she learned that we were on a mission to render aid to the smaller villages, she told us "please come back in a bit, we will prepare a box of food and water for you to take." Sure enough, within thirty minutes she had put together a box-full of amazing-looking tortas (enough to feed 40 people) and another box of large bottles of water. Eunice also recommended we speak with the town's doctor at the Centro De Salud (the town clinic).
We went straight to the Centro De Salud to determine what needs if any weren't being met. It was awesome watching Christa do what she does best - to be that liaison with the locals. According to the town doctor, Dr. Valencia, while Atlixco was hit hard with some fatalities, their proverbial cup also runneth over. However, Dr. Valencia shared with us that Yautepec, a city in the neighboring state of Morelos, had several communities that needed medical supplies and food. Dr. Valencia then drove us to a nearby Acopio to give us a large box of medicine to take to Yautepec. Our doctor cousin, Brenda, was instrumental at this point as she quickly rustled through the heaps of medicine to pick out the most vital medicine.
We loaded up the food, water and medicine and got on the road again making our way around the sleepy volcano giant, Popocateptl. Yautepec as it turned out was another 2 hours from our location. My fear at this point was for our safety. When the sun goes down in these parts of Mexico, it is best to be off the road as we were operating in cartel territory known for “secuestros” (kidnapping). We finally made it to Yautepec just before sunset and quickly made contact with Dr. Valencia's referral, a nice gentleman by the name of Angel Pita. After a brief introduction, he drove us to a nearby community known as “Los Nopales.” We drove another thirty minutes through backgrounds and quasi-jungle terrain and finally got to Los Nopales. We were shocked by what we saw. Not by the several homes that were flattened by the earthquake, but by the hundreds of volunteers that had already cleared out most of the debris. We parked in the community’s revered soccer field which had been turned into a makeshift parking lot for volunteers. From there we walked to the main volunteer tent only to once again witness an awe-inspiring site; mounds and mounds of donated goods, water. However, their medicine supply was running low, as was food for the volunteers. It felt nice to be able to deliver the tortas, water and medicine.
It was dark by now and getting more dangerous by the minute so our small team called it a night and got on the road back to Mexico City to complete our trip around Popocatepetl. We made it back to the city around 10:30p.m. After confirming that our beloved Mexico was in good hands, Crista and I changed our flight to get back home.
In 1985, during Mexico’s last major deadly earthquake, few offered to helped Mexico, including most of its citizens. Thirty-two years later, Mexico witnessed a phenomenon of copious volunteerism, particularly among its millennials. Whether this is due to the advent of social media, or just a national and international change of heart, it is hard to say. What I can say, based on our short yet extensive trip to the earthquake’s epicenter, is that Mexico will be fine. In fact, I would encourage Mexicans and the international community alike to redirect all support to Puerto Rico and to do so plentifully. I know I will. Our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters are indeed suffering and will continue to do so for months to come.
While I'm not too happy with how things happened with Team Rubicon this past weekend, I know they are a great organization who needs funds and volunteers to help out, and they are actively recruiting volunteers for Irma relief efforts in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Donate or Sign up here!
Click on the photos below to see more photographs from our trip to Mexico's earthquake zones.