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Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Tragic Anniversary

Yesterday I was talking on the phone with my friend Alejandro who lives in Mexico City.  He mentioned that it was the thirtieth anniversary of the tragic earthquake which struck the city in 1985.  Although his neighborhood suffered only minor damage from the quake, he remembers that event and its aftermath very well.  I suspect that every resident of the city who lived through those days has indelible memories of the catastrophe.  I was at the time a young Spanish teacher who had already made several trips to Mexico.  I clearly remember how I was glued to television reports and grieved for the death and destruction wrought by the quake. 

Thirty years later the residents of the city are, I believe, very observant of the earth's movements and still fear another "big one".  On three occasions I have been in the city during minor tremors.  I have seen how the people rush to the streets at the first sign of a quake.  On the worst of those three, on Good Friday of 2014, I joined them and rushed out of the apartment where I was staying.  I could feel the pavement beneath my feet quivering.

Mexico City, unlike San Francisco or Los Angeles, is not located near any major fault line.  But the city's unique geology makes it susceptible to quakes.  The central portion of the city is built on what was once lakebed, and the spongy soil amplifies tremors that might be centered hundreds of miles away.

On the morning of September 19, 1985, an earthquake with a magnitude of 8 on the Richter Scale occurred.  The epicenter was off Mexico's Pacific coast more than 200 miles away from Mexico City.  It was felt as far away as Houston, Texas.  Most everyone has heard of the Richter Scale, but while doing some reading about the quake I learned that there is another scale used to measure the earth's movements.  The Mercalli Intensity Scale measures the effects of a quake on the earth's surface.  The scale ranges from I (not felt) to XIII (complete destruction).  The Mexico City quake measured IX on the scale, and was classified as violent.  It was the worst earthquake in Mexico's recorded history.

Mexico City was devastated, especially in the central area built on the old lake bottom.  412 buildings completely collapsed and another 3000 were severely damaged.  The death toll will never be known.  Around 5000 bodies were recovered from the rubble.  Death estimates run as high as 45,000, but the most widely accepted figure is 10,000.

The response by the government was widely criticized.  Much of the rescue operation was organized by the residents themselves.  It is often said that the quake was a turning point in which the Mexican people lost confidence in the ruling political party (PRI) which had controlled the country since the Mexican Revolution.

(image from the web)

Quakes and tremors will always be a part of life in Mexico City, but I hope that it never again suffers a disaster of the magnitude of 1985.


   

8 comments:

  1. I remember that quake. I was living in Houston at the time, and there were reports of peoples' pools having ripples that morning. And I've read about the political aftermath too. In an odd kind of way, the quake gave Mexico's civil society a shot in the arm and helped usher in the changes which resulted in the PAN's 2000 presidential victory.

    But let's hope that Mexican society can continue to progress without that kind of disaster.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where, as a native Californian, I'm one of the very few with earthquake insurance on my house.

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    1. Yes, indeed. Hopefully it won't require another catastrophe to bring about needed changes in Mexico.

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  2. I was there. It was horrific. If you walk in the Zona Rosa, you can still see parts of the devastation from 30 years ago.

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    1. Oh, my goodness! You were actually in D.F. at the time of the earthquake? It must have been horrifying!

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  3. Well, I remember we were, in my neighborhood and the close neighborhoods, without electricity until about 8:00 pm but we knew about what had happened because we were hearing the radio but the worst were when we saw the images of disaster on a battery TV.
    The next night, September 20th, another earthquake, don't know exactly but I think 7.6 shaked us again and the panic attacked everybody.
    Yes, the prevention is a new way to face these events and the society started to create the ONGs (Not Governmental Organizations) to supply the ineptness of the government.

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  4. Tlatelolco was especially hard-hit by the quake of 85. There is a small monument there to Placido Domingo, who grew up in the barrio and went back post-quake to coordinate rescue efforts.

    Not to make light of the tragedy, but I also recall reading about some old buildings near Tepito that collapsed, revealing a multi-million dollar contraband den hidden inside!

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    1. Yes, I've read about Placido's work on the rescue efforts.
      For years afterward, I would still see buildings in ruins when I would return to D.F.

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