Diana Cordero, 22, was on her way home from Architecture School in Mexico City at the time of the earthquake on September 19th. As she got closer to the zones affected by the earthquake, she saw everyone worried, talking to each other, trying to figure out how they could help. “I saw the neighbors running with tools [to] clean the disaster areas. Everyone was touched by the event, so even if they were about to cry or not able physically to help, they were helping,” she tells progrss.
In just one month, Mexico City was the site of two earthquakes, a couple of weeks apart, which claimed more than 400 lives across the country and injured thousands.
Walking back home, Cordero came across two girls mourning over their damaged store, so she helped them remove broken glasses from the street. Later, she joined a human chain removing the rubble of a building that collapsed as a result of the earthquake. A few days after the earthquake, some needed gasoline to operate a generator so that rescue workers would be able to work at night. Cordero helped with that; she got the gasoline and bought food. “I served meals, packed food, made medicine kits and I gave working gloves to the rescue people. The subsequent days when there was enough help and food, I helped a group of architects to make some models of a prototype of emergent housing out of Mexico City,” she says. Today, Cordero and her colleagues from Architecture School are trying to make a plan to help design and rebuild the city.
On Wednesday, the day that followed the second earthquake, which struck on September 19, people started to become very active on social media, posting what was needed and where. Social media played a significant role in communication during the disaster relief period, helping civil society react faster than the state, Cordero continues. “I think that that was happening because of the state of emergency,” she says. “Later, we realized that the emergency is not always so important, because there are going to be strategic things that in the future will help more.”
Cordero spoke to an old lady coming all the way from her village to one of the disaster zones in the city carrying tons of food that she had cooked back at home to give to those who had lost their homes to the earthquake. The woman had raised a crowdfund from her neighbors.
“I think it is important to say that the disaster started not since the 19th, but since the 7th of September,” Andrea Pliego tells progrss. Pliego, 24, is another Architecture School student who joined a volunteer rescue group who journeyed to affected areas to offer help and needed resources. When an earthquake hit Oaxaca on September 7, it didn’t affect Mexico City, but did a lot of destruction in Oaxaca and Chiapas, which are respectively 288 and 521 miles away from the capital. “Mexico City became the hotspot and the other places that had suffered the disaster were alone again, as it happens always in Mexico because the government is centralized and focuses always on the main city,” says Pliego.
Two years ago, Mexico City’s Chief Resilience Officer Arnaldo Matus Kramer said that the government has been building a national civil protection system since the 1985 earthquake, so people know what they have to do in case of a disaster. “You can see the difference with the last hurricane in Mexico – Patricia – there were no fatalities even if it was the strongest one in the Pacific,” he added.
However, he admits that there are many long-term planning issues that pose grave risks for the city and metropolitan area, giving water-related risks as an example. “We are facing a time in which there’s a constant degradation of local and regional aquifers, which in 20 to 30 years could affect the supply of water to the city,” Kramer said. Other challenges that impact how the city copes with disasters are mobility and social inequalities, according to the Chief Resilience Officer.
On September 7, when the earthquake hit Oaxaca, a concerned Pliego was actually about go to Juchitán, an indigenous town in Oaxaca to do community work and help people there suffering from the aftermath. “The group with whom I was going was supposed to leave on the 20th, but the second earthquake came on the 19th and I got focused first on my house and family,” she explains.
“It’s a truly critical situation. The city – it’s as if it had been bombed,” Óscar Cruz López, Oaxaca’s municipal secretary, said the following day. With a magnitude of 8.2, the earthquake killed 61 people in Southern Mexico and one person in Guatemala. In Juchitán, thousands of homes were damaged, along with half of the 19th-century City Hall and its 30 arches. Even the main hospital in the city was badly affected. Patients were evacuated to an empty lot where doctors treated them under the light of flashlights on their cellphones.
After both earthquakes hit the country last month, Cordero believes that resilience is something that could be developed easily. “I understand resilience as the creativity to adapt and change our way of living as fast as we can when something like this happens,” she says. “I’ve always admired the creativity that we have to improvise solutions or to adapt what we have to what we want it to become.”
After the 1985 earthquake, people’s lives in Mexico City changed. With a magnitude of 8.0, the earthquake, which also took place on September 19, killed 10,000 people, injured 30,000 and stranded thousands from their homes. Also, architecture and construction changed because people realized they needed stronger buildings. However, Cordero tells us, recently, some buildings were built, ignoring the rules because, like anywhere else, it was cheaper and faster.
“Sadly, those people forgot or ignored the [number] of people who died or were injured in 1985 and the fact that that happened because of [badly] designed buildings,” she says. “I’ve always admired that a lot of people and neighbors of the damaged zones associated requested that the government provide housing solutions. Some of those organizations [are] still working today, trying to make [sure] that everybody has a house in good condition.”
A lot of architecture students helped draft manuals for auto construction so people could rebuild as much they could, but with the help of someone with a construction background. Cordero explains that she always noticed that people who lived during and experienced the 1985 earthquake never forgot the way they felt and the fear they had. Thirty-two years later, she thinks her generation will feel the same about this year’s earthquakes.
“What happened is making me reconsider completely what we are as a society and the power that we have, but also how a profession of architecture could be more useful for all kinds of people,” Cordero reflects.