Living in Mexico City Is a Perpetual Dare

Rescue workers and volunteers at the site of a collapsed building in Mexico City.Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
Rescue workers and volunteers at the site of a collapsed building in Mexico City. Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

What are the odds?

What are the odds that the same natural phenomenon would strike the same city, with the same fury, on the same exact date three decades apart?

Those of us who live here now know.

On Sept. 19, 1985, at 7:17 a.m., an earthquake of 8.1 magnitude hit Mexico City. Nothing like it had been recorded before. The final death toll is still in dispute, but more than 9,150 people are thought to have died in the disaster.

Construction codes were revised after that; we were taught emergency routes and procedures. The first thing you learn when you get a new job is where to walk, how to protect yourself and what not to do if an earthquake strikes. Stay away from stairs and windows; look for columns; find a “triangle of life,” a small space in which to take cover if the walls collapse around you. The local government invested in a citywide seismic alarm system with more than 8,000 loudspeakers. Depending on how far from Mexico City an earthquake originates, warnings ring out up to 50 seconds before you feel the first tremors.

On this Sept. 19, at 7:17 a.m., President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico was doing what every Mexican president has done for the past 32 years at that time: He was in El Zócalo, the capital’s main square, to raise the national flag at half-mast in commemoration of the victims of the big earthquake of 1985.

At exactly 11 a.m., the rest of us also did the same thing we have done at that moment since 1985: When the seismic alarm sounded for a drill, we all got up from our chairs and went through the motions we have learned to execute in an evacuation. Thousands of people poured into the streets. Some of us laughed a little, uncomfortably. There are false alarms every once in a while; in fact, there was one just on Sept. 6 — and the next day, the strongest earthquake Mexico has experienced in a century hit off the Pacific Coast. On Tuesday, after staying outside awkwardly for ten minutes or so, we went back to work.

And then at 1:14 p.m., the alarm sounded again. This time the earth moved. It really moved. Buildings collapsed; people got trapped. The latest preliminary report I’ve seen said that more than 100 people had died in Mexico City alone.

To live here is a dare, a perpetual dare.

The Aztecs used to inhabit the area around Lake Texcoco, but after the Spanish conquered the Aztec empire in the early 16th century, they decided to build a city on top of it. The lake was drained and tubed, and for nearly five centuries now, we have lived with water underneath us.

That water means not only that Mexico City floods easily and that some parts of it are sinking, by as much as 10 centimeters every year. The water also amplifies the effects of every earthquake that hits us. The city is surrounded by volcanos as well, one of them so active we have another alarm system for it, with semaphores. On Wednesday, the light was yellow, meaning on alert.

And yet we have kept on living here. Over the last 32 years, ever-taller buildings have been built, and more people have moved in downtown, even though earthquakes feel especially violent there. La Roma and La Condesa, two of the areas that sustained some of the worst damage in 1985, have become hipster neighborhoods. On Tuesday, they were hit the hardest again.

And on Tuesday, again, just like 32 years ago, as soon as the earth stopped moving, the streets filled up with the city’s residents, chilangos, looking for where and how to help. They carried water, food and medicine. They brought shovels to remove debris. They lined up to get into trucks and buses that would take them to neighborhoods where help was most needed. They opened up their homes to people who had lost theirs.

Because we all know of people who have died going into damaged buildings, hoping to rescue someone, many volunteers write their name and a phone number on their arms. On Wednesday afternoon, there were thousands and thousands of chilangos, skin with scribbles, in the streets — helping others even while fearing the next disaster, living the same way chilangos have lived for centuries.

Carlos Puig is a columnist and anchor with the Milenio media company in Mexico city.

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