September 2017 Earthquakes in México: One Year Later

On September 19, 2017, I was at work at my office in the neighborhood of La Roma, in Mexico City. One of my coworkers was having a meeting with our graphic designer and my other coworker and I were huddled over our computers. At 1:14pm, I felt a swaying motion and looked up, locking eyes with our visitor. One of my coworkers yelled, “Está temblando” (It’s an earthquake!) and we all scrambled out from behind our desks. I instinctively grabbed my purse and phone and rushed down toward the stairs behind my coworkers. As I attempted to go down the curved stairway, the swaying motion shifted to a violent vertical heaving and I had to put my hands against the wall to stay upright. I heard a loud crash behind me and proceeded to run down the stairs, jumping over the bicycle our designer had left in the hallway that was now blocking the door and hearing another loud crash, this time of glass breaking, somewhere next to me. When I got out the door, my coworkers motioned to me from behind a car and we all crouched down in the street, using the car as a potential shield for falling debris. Someone began to pray but I was too in shock to even think, still feeling the ground sway back and forth beneath me.

When the swaying mostly stopped, we all stood up and took stock, making sure we and those around us were ok. I remember an older woman next door walking toward us crying and my coworker went to hug her. Our office building was still standing, as were all the buildings we could see, though there was a large cloud of dust forming down the street. Everyone began checking their phones, calling or texting relatives to see if they were ok. Germán called me to see if I was ok and I managed to send a message to my family telling them what had happened and that I was ok before the networks got overloaded and shut down. Not sure what the extent of the earthquake was and unsure what to do, we began to walk towards the cloud of dust. The air began to smell of gas and a passing police officer told those who were lighting up cigarettes to put them out because of gas leaks. About one block from our office the cloud of dust was coming from a collapsed building. We asked around to the crowd of people that had started to form and it appeared that no one had been inside. It was so odd to see two buildings standing on either side and this one just slumped over in between them.

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Police had already started to congregate at this building and when we tried to continue down the street someone stopped us, saying it was closed because of a gas leak. We wandered back to our office, talking to strangers around us to try to fill in the gaps of our knowledge since internet and cell service was down. We got back to our building and checked the damage, the loud crash behind me had been our printer falling and the second one was the glass-front refrigerator of the tortillería next door. We didn’t see any major damage but also didn’t want to stay inside of any building for too long after seeing the building down the block. Cell service was going in and out at this point and one of my coworkers had still not heard from his mom in Xochimilco and the other was worried about how her neighborhood had fared in the notoriously shaky center of the city, where the earthquake of 1985, fatefully on the same day, had hit hard. So we decided to split up and make our way back to our respective neighborhoods.

The metro was closed which is how I normally got home so I decided to walk to the metrobus. I was able to board the bus with many other people and we started down the street, only to be stopped behind another bus a minute later where we waited, slowly advancing until we reached the next stop and were told that the metrobus was thereby closed. We all got out and joined the crowd of people walking down Insurgentes, one of the main arteries of Mexico City, eerily absent of cars with pedestrians and bikers forming a sort of solemn parade.

A few blocks later we were detoured away from Insurgentes due to a gas leak so I started walking down side streets more or less parallel to Insurgentes, trying to get south. I saw many broken windows and even hospitals evacuating their patients. At this point cars were passing by but they were going slower than I was on foot so I kept walking. Whenever I got service I would check my messages and Google Maps to make sure I was walking in the right direction. Germán had decided to stay a little while longer in Polanco since the traffic leaving there, normally very heavy, was surely intense. He ended up getting a ride from a coworker to Del Valle, most of the way home for him, but I was already passing by when he was just leaving Polanco so I went on alone. I walked and walked until I got to my municipality of Coyoacan, then got on a bus for the equivalent of the last two metro stops then walked some more. I probably walked more than 6 miles that afternoon and arrived home with my feet all chewed up from my shoes that I had not planned to walk in all afternoon. Germán’s mom, a professor at the UNAM, and her TA were at our apartment as the UNAM is right around the corner so they were riding out the “susto” (scare) and the traffic at our house.

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My apartment, built on volcanic rock, was completely fine. Even the pair of tall vases on my table were upright with their flowers still within them. By the time I got home, hours had passed and the power and other services had been restored in my neighborhood. We swapped stories and listened to the news and I began to find out that many had not been nearly so lucky as me. The 7.1 earthquake had its epicenter to the south of the city of Puebla, about 80 miles from Mexico City, and at final count killed 361 people and injured 6,011. Thousands of buildings collapsed or were badly damaged by the quake. All that night we watched the news and saw videos of building after building collapse, many with people trapped inside. Germán’s mom ended up staying with us that night as the city was still in chaos but early the next morning we went with her to her home in Tlalpan and then went to Costco to get emergency supplies to donate to rescue efforts and shelters that were springing up all over. We spent the rest of that day at a supply center next to a collapsed school moving water, food, shovels, medical supples, clothes, etc. in a human chain, loading up cars that were going to the most affected zones: Condesa, Roma, Xochimilco and further south to the mountains of Puebla where it was rumored damages were widespread in the hard to reach communities.

In the following days the relief effort became more organized. There were designated supply centers and an army of cyclists that transported supplies from place to place, avoiding congesting the streets with traffic so that emergency vehicles could pass through. In order to verify where supplies were still needed and what needed to be moved there, giant networks of communication were formed through WhatsApp to identify those needs in real time. In contrast to the response to the 1985 earthquake, the ax1PG8W_460sgovernment had a strong presence in supply centers and rescue sites alike. We all got to know Frida, the yellow lab on the Nay search and rescue team who wore goggles and booties to investigate the rubble, saving 52 people from collapsed buildings. Despite the recent tragedy, there was an incredible outpouring of support and strong sense of community in the city. Although many restaurants and businesses were closed in the days after the earthquake, some restaurants opened to serve free meals to volunteers, and psychiatrists and therapists volunteered their services at supply centers and shelters to help survivors and volunteers deal with the trauma.

Only a few days later, on Saturday, September 23rd, we were woken up to the earthquake alarm and rushed out the house, reliving the fear and anxiety of earlier that week. While in Mexico City this earthquake just brought up our collective trauma, it toppled buildings and caused more casualties in Oaxaca. This 6.1 quake was actually an aftershock of the 8.1 earthquake that hit Oaxaca just weeks before, on September 7th. And while help and international support were pouring into Mexico City, the people of Oaxaca, especially in the Istmo region, were lacking in supplies and aid.

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Istmo de Tehuantepec, Oaxaca (Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oaxaca_Valley)

Supplies kept getting donated however, and now the people of Mexico City did direct some of that to help Oaxaca.  This trio of deadly earthquakes in one month, with aftershocks happening practically every day, inspired international giving, and I had family and friends inquiring how best to support the country in this trying time. That was actually a difficult question to answer, there was of course the Red Cross, the volunteer rescue squads, the government reconstruction, and a wide variety of smaller nonprofits with their own specific mission. Donations to the Red Cross do not go 100% to rescue and relief efforts (which as a nonprofit professional I am very ok with and wish everyone could get over this fear, but that’s a story for another day) so many were looking to donate elsewhere. The volunteer rescue squads were a good cause but they were flooded with donations after the earthquake and it was unsure what they would do with all that money after their supply needs were met. And there were serious concerns with the government that ended up being justified.

Once the immediate aftermath passed and the task turned to the reconstruction of much of the country, the government’s positive force changed to a feet-dragging bureaucratic let down.  It was the government’s responsibility to reconstruct schools but they did so very slowly, many schools did not reopen until December or January, and even then they are learning in temporary structures. Money distributed to families to rebuild their houses did not have any selection criteria and there was little transparency in the process. Especially since the timing of reconstruction coincided with elections, there are suspicions of political cronyism playing a role in this distribution, and even that the government stole some of this money for their campaigns. In Mexico City, there are more than just suspicions of embezzlement, there are three cases of municipal governments not complying with their reconstruction promises and information on amounts of money destined for reconstruction has suspiciously gone missing from the public record. And it was not the case at all that this money was no longer needed for reconstruction, there are still communities, especially in the harder-to-reach areas, that have not been attended to since the earthquake. But even within Mexico City, Xochimilco, a municipality to the south that was hit hard, was without power and water for months.

However, where the government has failed, the nonprofit sector has stepped in. Now, one year later, the money that was donated to funds has been distributed to deserving projects and reconstruction is underway throughout the country. I want to highlight here a couple of amazing funds or projects that I’ve learned about that deserve support and recognition.

Fondo Semillas

Semillas is a feminist organization that aims to improve women’s lives in Mexico. Obviously their reconstruction efforts have this women-led focus, supporting projects directed by women called “Women Rebuilding their Communities“. There are 25 projects that were selected from the many more that applied and the geographic range, though focused on Oaxaca, is all over central and south Mexico. You can like them on Facebook to hear more about the projects which started this July and if you feel inspired to support their efforts you can donate here.

Fondo Levantemos México

This fund has sprung up from the organization Ambulante, an organization that produces documentaries, organizes documentary film festivals and promotes the next generation of documentary film making through training. At the helm of the organization are Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, who fundraised after the earthquake and decided to create a Fund within Ambulante called Levantemos México. The projects are split between those organized by established nonprofits with history in the area and new groups that sprung up after the earthquake to help their community rebuild and recover. Many of the projects focus on rebuilding houses, either distributing typical construction supplies or rebuilding using traditional but forgotten building techniques like reinforced adobe that are actually very earthquake resistant. However, there are also projects that focus on rebuilding the social network in communities or that are trying to reenergize the local economy, especially for the Istmo region where interestingly, many of Mexico’s chips are made. There’s a full breakdown of the 45 projects funded by Levantemos Mexico here showing what they’re working on. And while most of their Facebook is focused on their documentaries, they’re also putting up news on Levantemos México now and again if you want to stay in the loop.

Isla Urbana

One of Levantemos Mexico’s funded projects is headed by my favorite nonprofit in Mexico, Isla Urbana. Isla Urbana’s mission is to increase access to a clean, reliable and affordable water source for Mexicans through rainwater harvesting. In the period after the earthquake when Xochimilco didn’t have power and water, the streets were still badly damaged, which made trucking in water difficult. Isla Urbana had actually been contracted there to install rainwater harvesting systems years before and the people that had those systems were the only ones in their neighborhood that had water. They ended up sharing with their neighbors and called up the municipality to see why more couldn’t be installed. Isla Urbana came in, supported with donations from all over the world, and installed 350 disaster relief systems in houses in San Gregorio, the neighborhood in Xochimilco that was most affected. They’re continuing this work with support from Levantemos México but they are always installing systems throughout Mexico City and beyond to provide a water source for those who do not have one. If you would like to support their work of providing water to the most vulnerable and improving the resiliency of communities, especially after natural disasters like the earthquake, you can donate here or get to know more by following them on Facebook.

Today will be an emotional day for many Mexicans (and people living here, like me), one when we remember the horror of feeling the ground shake beneath us and seeing buildings collapse to the ground, but we will also remember the camaraderie and fellowship of those days afterwards when everyone worked together to help out those in need. In these times of political division and environmental catastrophes, I hope we can hold on to that feeling to face the challenges ahead.