No familiar names for Mexico’s terremotos or earthquakes, no “José,” no “Katia;” unnamed, but killers just the same.
A massive quake—8.2 on the Richter scale—largest in a century, hit southern Mexico, Thursday, September 7th, 2017. It’s epicenter was off the west coast of the State of Chiapas. Sixty-one deaths and climbing, most in nearby Oaxaca State.
Tremors were felt in Guatemala and reached Mexico City, over 1,000 kilometers away. The “Angel” of Independence swayed on Avenida Reforma. President Enrique Peña Nieto flew Friday to survey the damage and offer federal government help. After “natural” disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes, political repercussions are not far away.
But there are none in Mexico foolish enough to argue, as did the U.S. Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, that he would help pay for recovery in his state (Hurricane Harvey) but not in another (Hurricane Sandy). Mexico politics is intense, but not quite so hypocritical.
Another major quake hit Mexico City in October 1985 (“only” 7.5 on the Richter). It also had no name but was an underlying cause of significant political change for years afterwards. Building codes improved (now as good as those of Japan). More pervasive movement for increased democratic, grass roots action increased.
Citizens living in tents for months after the 1985 shock, organized and joined with others to demand government responsibility and response. It was political and, for me, personal. That quake’s impact in October brooded over my wedding in November. It took the life of my spouse’s cousin, a doctor. The walls of his hospital fell and crushed him. It had been badly constructed, the same with many other buildings of the 1950s and 60s, due to corruption among builders, government officials looking the other way.
Ancient (Aztec or colonial) walls stood. More modern walls (the Tower of the Americas) stood, built on platforms designed to sway with the undulating tremors. I felt admiration for the ancients and even for the modern technocrats who were beginning to rule Mexico. My involvement is still personal.
Today, I feel for the thousands, injured or homeless in Chiapas (Juichitán was destroyed). There, my students and I rode horses in the mountains in the late 1990s, “Zapatistas” probably watching us from above. Chiapas, still a poor State, but improving, received another unneeded set-back as it was hit Thursday. “Houses moved like chewing gum” (Mayor Rodrigo Soberanes, San Cristóbal de las Casas). Thirty percent of some small villages were destroyed. Mass evacuations were ordered in some areas, lest weakened buildings cause more casualities.
“A total disaster; don’t leave us alone,” pleaded the Mayor of another village, Gloria Sánchez López. Among others affected, a baby died in Tabasco, power cut off from her ventilator. One million are without electricity, as homes, schools, and hospitals have been leveled. One impending disaster (Hurricane “Katia”) is impeding recovery from the earthquake. Latin American presidents and Spain immediately offered assistance.
Meanwhile, we are learning more about the science of this phenomena. This recent quake was 19 kilometers deep, involving at least five tectonic plates. It was a “perfect storm” in an expected location, the “Middle American Trench.” The Cocos plate is constantly sliding under the North American plate, creating “subduction” zones, which proliferate all around the Pacific, extending to coastal U.S. (U.S. Geological Survey).
We respect the U.S. Geological Survey and other major governmental institutions (of the U.S. and of Mexico). We need their science. Twenty aftershocks were estimated for Mexico. We cannot always know when or where. Quakes are not hurricanes. But the general knowledge is helpful. And, of course, the most powerful ones are memorable. Remember 2004, the Indonesia 9.1 quake, the Tsunami? Or the 2011 (9.0) quake that disabled a nuclear plant in Japan? Remember San Francisco?
Government, here and in Mexico, is involved and must be involved (prediction, rescue, rebuilding). Mexicans do not hate government, they do not deny climate change or science. We should learn from them. We cannot deny science. We cannot hate government, support officials who cut essential taxes and essential services, such as meteorological predictions, and then expect (without hypocrisy) aid when disaster comes. Disaster has come (Harvey) and is coming (Irma). Another, unnamed disaster hit Mexico at the same time. But perhaps the only name terremotos can have are their dates and the tragic truths seared into the memories of survivors. Let us honor them by learning from them.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this guest column shows residents stand in front of rubble from a partially collapsed building felled by a massive earthquake in Juichitán, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Friday, Sept. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Luis Alberto Cruz)