The Mexico City earthquake alert worked. The rest of the country was not so lucky


My stream had burst with videos of everything from lampposts to the giant Monument of the Angel of Independence swaying feverishly. People filmed transformers exploding, sending out sparks and leaving many neighborhoods without electricity. The city’s emergency services swung into action, disseminating data on the quake and deploying to check for damage while warning of aftershocks.

It quickly became apparent that there had been minimal damage in Mexico City. A few factors spared us a repeat of 1985. The epicenter was further out of town this time, and it occurred deeper in the crust. Building codes have been updated and rigorously enforced since 1985, when many shoddy structures – some licensed through corrupt government contracts – collapsed into rubble. Since there was no widespread destruction, the early warning alarm probably didn’t save a life this time around, but it worked exactly as it was meant to. The people of Mexico are relieved. Certainly, we were geologically lucky, but we also benefited from the measures put in place to protect the capital, which withstood their most severe test to date.

In southern Mexico, however, it’s a different story. So far, more than 30 deaths have been reported and many buildings have collapsed or been severely damaged in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Tabasco. Part of the town hall of Juchitán, Oaxaca, apparently disintegrated, with a Mexican flag standing among the rubble. Rescue efforts continue.

Large swathes of these states are rural and isolated, and it will likely take several days to understand the true extent of the devastation. The early warning system sensors move up and down the Pacific coast, and some cities, like Acapulco, have an early warning system (although residents necessarily have a shorter window to get to safety, as they are closer to the origin of earthquakes). These coastal areas help protect us from damage caused by the earthquake in Mexico City, but due to poverty and isolation, they are among the least protected.

Mexico is a very centralized country, with a political, cultural and economic life that revolves around Mexico City. The trauma of the capital devastated in 1985 is engraved in the psyche of the country, and for good reason. People who remember it say it looked like the city had been bombed; you could smell the corpses for days. But in its wake, the city and country have stepped up to do everything possible to avert another disaster of this magnitude here. So far it has worked. But the devastation in the south makes it clear that communities that are even more at risk have not received the same protection. They don’t have building codes or inspectors to enforce them. They don’t have early alarms. Many do not even have reliable routes through which help can arrive. For too long, Mexico City has been the only place in people’s minds when it comes to earthquake preparedness and protection. Perhaps the earthquake will finally change that.

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