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.
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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.