Los Angeles Times
By Agustín Barrios Gómez
On Sept. 19, 1985, an earthquake registering 8.1 on the Richter scale struck Mexico City. Partly because of inadequate building codes, the death toll reached upward of 20,000 people. Electricity, telephones, the airport, the subway — all were down for several days.
The government’s failure was especially glaring. Insular and out of touch after 56 years of single-party rule, then-President Miguel de la Madrid responded testily to offers of international help by declaring, “We are self-sufficient.” We were not, but we tried to be. In collective shock at the lack of response from their government, Mexicans self-organized. We coordinated massive relief efforts that saved many thousands of lives, and we rebuilt astonishingly fast.
Exactly 32 years later, on Sept. 19, 2017, a combination trepidatory (up-and-down) and oscillatory (side-to-side) 7.1 earthquake hit, 12 days after a nearby oscillatory 8.2 quake. The Richter scale measures energy released, not the violence of the quake, which has more to do with location, depth and geological characteristics of the affected area. So the 7.1 felt 10 times worse than the 8.2. You’ve seen the videos shot around the city by stunned citizens — and they are terrible.
But unlike in 1985, government, civil society and the building codes are much more resilient. Electricity, telephones, the airport, the subway — all are functioning. In what has to be one of the great coincidences of the decade, two hours before the earthquake struck, the city performed its annual seismic drill. (It takes place on the anniversary of the 1985 quake.) We have an earthquake early warning system mounted on each of the city’s 15,000 CCTV cameras. Up to 90 seconds’ warning can make the difference between deaths in the hundreds or the thousands.