Mexico 1985 and 2017: What Changed?

Sep 21, 2017 (San Diego) On Sep 19, 1985, Mexico City went through an 8.1 Richter scale quake. Damage was extensive, and casualties were over 10,000 people who died. Some have speculated as high as 40,000 in Mexico City alone. The damage was concentrated in areas of the city where the substrate is the ancient lake bed, that moved like gelatin, and magnified the shock waves.

Some places, like the General Hospital that collapsed, became the centers of hope. Babies were recovered and these days are adults. Some perhaps, are among the rescuers trying to pull people out of the ruble as I type. But the response is different. In 1985 Mexico did not have a civil defense. The response was ad-hoc. Every person or agency on its own. The response was haphazard, and the Mexican government took time to accept technical help. Simple things like medical triage did not exist or were just starting to take hold after the San Juanico explosion of the previous year.

Civil society did respond. They climbed on the ruble and they moved into the rubble. This is the origin of the Topos group that has responded to many disasters around the world since.

Emergency teams that responded in 1985 were poorly equipped and poorly trained. While they wanted to do the job, they intended to save as many as they could, they simply did not have the tools. There was chaos, and lack of command and control with people getting in each other’s way, not that they intended to do that. It just happened. The disaster was well beyond the ability of the Mexican government.

After the 1985 earthquake, there were a few things that occurred in short order that has made all the difference. Yes, you still hear people complaining that they do, not see official help. In the State of Morelos, there are people who have not received help. They are remote and they need that help right now. We suspect that is starting to happen though. Isolated areas around the world are the last to get help in any disaster.

The Rise of a Mexican Response System

The first is that Mexico centralized disaster planning in the Centro Nacional de Desastres, (CENAPRED), National Center for Disasters, and the military wrote the early versions of the DN-III-E response plan. These days that plan has been augmented by other plans that work with it, not on top of it. They include the Navy, with Plan Marina and Plan MX. Every disaster they are refined. Plan MX is the latest in this family of plans and involves national essential infrastructure and communications.

Mexican Red Cross medics and specialists in USAR, continue to work in the attention to the injured. 

This early disaster plan incorporated what you might think are traditional first responders, including fire, police, at all levels, and in Mexico the Red Cross. The Red Cross was one of the Non-Government Organizations included since it has a network of trauma centers, EMS trained personnel, shelter personnel and other administrative personnel, and command and control assets. It also has, unlike their counterparts in the United States, a stellar reputation.

It also included sophisticated training and rescue equipment. Mexico has gone from not having trained personnel in search and rescue (SAR), and urban search and rescue (USAR), to a country that has multiple teams, not just the Topos, but the Navy and the Army have sophisticated infrared cameras and sensors that can detect movements across walls, as well as microphones. This also exists in fire departments and the Red Cross which was USAR teams. Teams of rescue dogs exist in both fire departments and the Red Cross, and the military. There is no posse comitatus in Mexico, so in an incident of this size the military takes over overall command and control. This is why an admiral is in charge of the rescue at the Rebmasen school.

If you were abroad in 1985 you know that you could not call Mexico City. The communications tower went down, and for three long days, we personally waited. At the time Ham Radio operators were incredibly helpful. This time around the communications infrastructure held. However, this is a lesson for you in the United States, the Mexican Government encouraged people to use SMS, and WhatsApp to talk to each other, and leave phone line clear. This recommendation is no longer active.

There is another thing that happened in Mexico. If you have been there in recent years, you probably have seen a green square on the ground with a circle. There are white arrows pointing to the circles. This is the security point for people to gather in an emergency. Mexico drills not just every year, but so often. There are block captains to organize people in case of an emergency. Think of this as CERT on steroids.

People do spontaneously volunteer during disasters to help. They trained people the night of the quake to help in debris removal, at the National University. They do not turn people away, well except when they have more hands than they need, as it has happened. Many of these ad hoc volunteers were the young people who grew up in an environment of safety and helping each other in case of an emergency. These millennial, hipsters, university students, have responded and are helping to organize and classify the help that comes into these collection centers. These sprouted in both the usual places, like the Red Cross national headquarters in Polanco, or the ad hoc ones at the block level.

Then there is the construction code. Many of the buildings that collapsed in 1985, there were scandals about those who violated the construction code. After 1985 that was no longer done. There were no mordidas and the code is not just enforced, but it is one of the toughest in the world. The buildings that collapsed this time around are pre-1985 structures. They also collapsed in the same areas that were the worst hit in 1985.

International help came to Mexico in 1985, but for the Mexican government it was a hit to national pride. President Miguel de la Madrid was accused of false pride and not accepting it on time. A first responder famously took away a cigarette he was smoking. In 1985 teams came, and food came.

1985 saw one major error in international help, which was corrected by swift federal improvisation. One of the donations in food was smoked herring and smoked salmon. Those are not usually eaten in Mexico, so the government had them sold at delis, catering to expats and Mexicans of Jewish and German extraction and used the money to buy rice and beans. These days, international aide tends to come with culturally appropriate foodstuffs. This was a lesson learned by the international response community. Since 1985 that system has also strengthened and improved.

This time around President Enrique Pena Nieto accepted the technical aid, with the same rescue teams that came in 1985. Israeli and Japanese experts are now at the Rebmasen School working along side Mexican Navy USAR personnel. They are trying to reach an adult at this point.

Then there is the area of rumors. Social media has been both a blessing and a curse. They have helped to spread specific needs, such as hand tools, or even medical equipment. Rumors have spread though social media. These include stories of collapsed buildings, or near collapsed buildings, such as the Plaza Condesa. The truth is that the building was surrounded by the military, and was checked by civil engineers, and found to have cosmetic damage. Some of the frontage could come lose and fall and hurt people, However, rumors for two hours were extensive to the level of destruction. This is a well known music venue.

This is a problem in any disaster, so the Mexican media has spent part of their time squashing rumors.

There is one thing to be said about Mexican solidarity. It is extensive, People are working to help each other and keep each other safe. This ranges from opening wifi networks, to feeding people, to donating material. Then there are people who have climbed on to the ruins and helped to remove it, like 1985, stone by stone, piece of debris by piece of debris. This is hard, difficult work. But this time around it is directed by professionals, who took over as soon as possible. In some cases immediately.

This culture of helping each other is ingrained in Mexican civil society. There is a sense of the we, not the me, or the I. We have shadows of this in the United States, and we saw it with the Cajun Navy. But we need more of that, and this is a lesson we all could learn.

Then there are the bad things. Some Mexicans have stolen tools, and foodstuffs and other things. There are reports of isolated looting. These are a minority and rightfully so, the media is raking them over the coals. The police has said there will be zero tolerance for this. And right now, they are asking for volunteers to help stand guard outside evacuated buildings that have yet to be checked by civil engineers.

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1 reply

  1. Outstanding writing! Thanks for all your hard work on this.

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