The Mexico City earthquake, 30 years on: have the lessons been forgotten?

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The Mexico City earthquake, 30 years on: have the lessons been forgotten?
A residential block collapses during the Mexico City earthquake in September 1985

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The Mexico City earthquake, 30 years on: have the lessons been forgotten?
A residential block collapses during the Mexico City earthquake in September 1985

The feeble response of ruling politicians to the devastating 1985 quake sparked a grassroots movement to challenge corruption and secure low-cost housing. Yet modern Mexico City often seems indifferent to poverty and inequality

The devastation of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake was swift. In just over a minute – in the early hours of 19 September, while the city was still asleep – 100,000 houses crumbled, 5,000 people died and roughly five million residents were left without electricity or potable water. On the Televisa broadcast that morning, newscaster Lourdes Guerrero maintained her smile as the room around her began to move. “It is still shaking a little,” she said into the camera. “But we must remain calm. We will wait a second so that we can continue talking.” The feed cut to static.

Just a few blocks away, the historic city centre, or El Centro, was in pieces. Cathedrals, hospitals, museums and other monuments to Mexican history were destroyed. The Hotel Regis, once the neoclassical centrepiece of the downtown area, was all rubble and ash.

Situated between three large tectonic plates, Mexico is a seismological nightmare. Mexico City is its most vulnerable city, built as it is on a sinking lake bed. With a magnitude of 8.1, the 1985 earthquake pushed Mexico far past its breaking point.

Three decades later, however, El Centro bears almost no trace of this devastation. With millions of dollars poured into development projects by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, the rubble of 1985 has been replaced by new sidewalks, public furniture, freshly painted tenements and outdoor Wi-Fi. City officials maintain that building codes are enforced, and the mayor’s office has developed a six-point plan in case of future emergencies. In the 30 years since the earthquake, the city government has managed to transform Mexico City’s wealthy centre into a major tourist destination. []

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