Mexico City’s ‘85 earthquake and the Miami condo collapse

Neil Snarr - Contributing columnist

The tragedy in Miami, Florida brings to my mind the devastation Mexico City (MC) experienced several decades ago.

I visited that city a few weeks after the quake and was amazed; I found the damage beyond belief. It was a very serious quake (8.1 on the Richter Scale) and, unlike the Miami tragedy, thousands of buildings were totally destroyed.

The number of persons killed was early on estimated at 10,000. More recent estimates are half that number, yet other estimates are much higher – even as high as 60,000. We will never know for certain.

The contrast between MC in 1985 and Miami today is dramatic. Building codes are quite stringent in Miami, but were virtually nonexistent in MC. This has changed in MC and, when the codes are followed, they are quite successful … more later.

One example of Mexican know-how is the Latin American Tower in the cities’ center. It is a showplace for Mexican architecture and safe construction. It was built in 1956 — before the 1985 devastating earthquake — and survived without an issue.

When I was regularly taking groups to the city, the Tower was the first place we would visit – atop the 45 floors was the best location for viewing the city. However, the expertise utilized in building this structure is only occasionally used, as it is very expensive.

Reports from Miami point to the issue of salt water as a factor in the deterioration of construction material, but the issue in MC is the fact that the city is built on a lake bed that is not secure. When the Spanish Conquistadores entered the valley of Mexico in the 16th century, they found the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan on islands in the middle of the shallow Lake Texcoco. Over the years, the lake has been drained and the city expanded to this area.

The disaster in Miami has captured the attention of our country and beyond, and is reported on daily in the news. The event during the aftermath of the MC disaster was also special international news, but there was a very unusual event there that garnered special attention – “the miracle babies.”

In MC after the initial shocks, as one observer states, “residents rolled up their sleeves and starting digging through the rubble – brick by brick — searching for survivors. Every few minutes, one of the volunteers would yell, ‘Silencio!’ and immediately, everyone would stop digging. There was an eerie quiet in the dusty air as we all listened for any sound of survivors. But as the days went by, the chances of finding more victims alive grew slimmer and slimmer.”

And then came the miracles.

“In the middle of the night, six days after the quake first struck, we were filming at the Juarez Hospital in the heart of the capital. No one had been rescued in days. Then suddenly, the volunteers raised their hands in the air, once again calling for silence.

One of the workers had heard what he thought was a faint sound of a baby crying. The volunteers then resumed their frantic digging. And sure enough, within minutes, they gently pulled a 6-day-old infant – tiny Elvira Rosas – out of the rubble. She had been born just minutes before the ground shook almost a week before, and somehow, against all odds, had survived.

And, that wasn’t all. An hour-and-a-half later, another call for quiet and yet another infant – this time an 8-day-old baby boy was carried out to cheers and tearful cries of gratitude.” This was repeated several times.

The mention above of the citizen volunteers is a major contrast to the scene today in Miami. Today in Miami there are hundreds of, not volunteers, but highly trained professionals working around the clock and using the latest technological tools – people trained specifically for this type of work.

What a difference between the wealthiest country in the world and a struggling developing country. Of course, there is also the 36 years between the two events.

During the aftermath of this massive disaster, the people did come out of their houses and proceed to take over the streets as well as the rescue efforts. It was clear that the central government was too shaken, corrupt and impotent to successfully respond – and Mexico’s citizens were learning a very important lesson: their government doesn’t work!

This is considered the beginning of the end of one-party rule in Mexico and the beginning of a move toward a democratic Mexico.

Another interesting contrast between the two events is the response of the heads of state. President de la Madrid in Mexico did not speak publicly for two full days after the quake, while our president has been a vocal observer and now a visitor to the Miami location.

The grass-roots response in Mexico brought political pressure to their government and, “In this political vacuum, local grassroots groups organized the rescue of victims – known as damnificados – and reconstructed homes for them … ‘The city was just different. Wherever you looked, there were people taking and bringing aid.’”

I can remember reports of people from the surrounding villages and country-side creating massive traffic jams in their effort to bring their tacos, burritos, and tamales to these damnificados. I have personally found the Mexican people to be very generous.

Mexico has learned a great deal from the 1985 earthquake, but just how it has permeated the lower classes and those outside the urban centers remains a serious question.

There is now an early warning system which is considered a model for other developing countries. There are also building codes, but it is clear that most emphasis is focused on the city center in Mexico City. “But actually, enforcing building codes remains a challenge throughout Mexico – as in other countries around the world… ‘nonengineered’ types of construction are estimated to account for 40% of Mexico City’s building stock, and there are concerns that poverty and inequality contribute to the continuing vulnerability to earthquakes, especially away from the city centre.”

A more critical assessment of the Mexican situation comes from the British publication The Guardian a few years ago.

Soon after the 1985 quake, the historic city center, or El Centro, was in shambles, but now bears almost no trace of the devastation (I visited the city several times in the interim.) “Yet, in the peripheral zones, beyond the tourist’s reach, informal settlements continue to proliferate. There, codes and regulations are irrelevant. Residents build with whatever materials they can find and afford, and they continue to struggle to gain access to basic services such as water and electricity. For all the improvements of the last 30 years, roughly 60% of the city is made up of these unregulated, informal and vulnerable zones.”

As the people of Mexico City wait and pray that the next inevitable quake will be minor and/or visit another section of the city or country, the people of Miami will be deciding what they’re next move will be. We can expect investigations, probably law suits and much more.

But I wonder if it will lead to major changes, political or economic, like those that followed the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City.

Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus of Wilmington College.

Neil Snarr

Contributing columnist