48 After 7.1: A Lesson Learned From Mexico City’s Fatal Quake

Your presence costs nothing, but means everything

Time To Read: 8 mins | September 23, 2017

Half a mile out, you won’t notice anything out of the ordinary. If you’re paying attention you might spot more high-vis jackets than normal, sure, or more people carrying hard hats. But life is otherwise continuing as normal. Mexicans in business suits on their lunch break walking down a busy sidewalk next to honking cars, talking on cell phones and forcing laughter at their cute coworker’s jokes.

The first sign that you’re getting close is the noise — or rather, the lack thereof. There’s a few reasons for the silence: all but emergency vehicle traffic has been closed off. It also helps with the searches, giving rescuers a chance to listen for anyone still alive under the rubble.

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And it serves as a courtesy for the mourning.

At any one of the dozens of relief stations, you’ll find locals carrying cardboard signs over their head. Markers are being handed out for free so volunteers can update their needs list – they’re good on water, thank you, but jackets for the displaced are in short supply (Mexico City is significantly higher in altitude than Denver; the nights get cold). One guy’s ambitiously asking for oxygen tanks. But the most common signs are cell phone requests, carried by families who are offering to pay you for a half hour on your iPhone so they can contact loved ones.

32 years ago to the day, a magnitude 8.0 quake collapsed or damaged over 3,500 buildings in CDMX, killing over 5,000 people and causing an estimated $4 billion in damage. The results of the recent 7.1 aren’t that devastating, thankfully, but with the death toll nearing 300 and uncountable thousands displaced from their homes, the comparison’s not much comfort.

The epicenter was well south of the city. Pueblo was the hardest hit suburb – you may have seen the headlines about the school that collapsed, killing over 30 children? Rescuers told the media that they’d found a girl alive under the rubble; ‘Frida’ became a focal point for hope and unity, until news broke that she was a lie, completely made up, something invented by a government employee to spur hollow optimism in the midst of tragedy.

But the Mexicans don’t need false idols for their faith.

Righteous distrust of the authorities, in part, explains the scene in La Condesa. The downtown neighborhood is one of the oldest areas of the capital (meaning poor construction) and sits on a dried lakebed (meaning unstable ground). So when the quake of ’85 happened, Condesa took the most serious beating. That led to shrunken prices on vintage homes, which led to the artists moving in. Three decades later, gentrification has molded the area into the ‘it-scene’ of CDMX, the expensive & cool part of the city, full of bass-driven clubs and posh restaurants and insanely overpriced apartments. Think Brooklyn in Mexico.

But none of that money went towards reinforcing the building, so September 19th crushed the neighborhood all over again. Two days after the quake, the scene is still chaos.

Anything collapsed or potentially weakened is, by now, taped off. Human lines of police and military keep the public out of the danger zones. They don’t like being photographed – I’ve had more than a few uncomfortable conversations with Mexican cops before, but never been quite so shouted at as when I started snapping pics of them taping off a newly-condemned building.

You see more damage looking up than looking ahead. While several buildings did completely crumble, and those images get more viewers for Fox News, seemingly every tall structure in the area has visible damage. Glass is the most noticeable problem – entire panes missing, and ten times that amount are cracked. There’s regular patches of crumbled wall a few stories up, and in one case, I found a third floor patio that’d landed on a Jetta.

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Thing is though, you can’t keep your eyes up for long or you’ll collide with a volunteer.

The authorities are doing their job, keeping spectators out of the danger zones, but a lack of manpower and trust (see: Frida) has brought a staggering number of regular folks out to help. Elbow room is non-existent near the relief centers, for the best possible reason.

Senior citizens are carrying pickaxes. Teens not through puberty are wearing hard hats. Men and women who — by one lady’s own admission — have never organized a thing in their life, but are now shouting orders for other volunteers to go here and do that.

And then there’s the food. It’s everywhere. There’s official-looking tents with sandwiches and plastic trays of fruit, yes, but they drown in comparison to the random people on the street, most of them middle-aged women, who are sitting next to baskets of homemade sandwiches and water bottles they force upon anyone who passes. I was offered at least 3 empanadas over the course of the day for doing nothing more than being there.

The restaurants are getting in on the act too. As mentioned, most of these aren’t low-end diners; Condesa’s the hippest place in town. Chefs and owners used to plating the finest dishes in the city are standing in front of their shops with fold out tables, offering whatever’s easiest for the passing volunteer to handle. One Italian place must have decided pasta wasn’t wieldy enough for the situation, and thus decided to mass produce tacos on their front steps.

After a few hours walking around, I passed a BBQ joint a couple blocks away from the busiest areas. Slightly out of the way, then, but they still had a chalkboard outside offering free food for volunteers. I just wanted a beer before going home – when I slid my pesos across the bar, the bartender refused my money. “No estoy voluntario,” I explained in my patented crap Spanish.

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 He responded in equally crap yet accidentally deep English, “But you are here.”

The same thing would happen on my drive home. Having called my Uber to a street technically inside Condesa, the fare was free. I did nothing to deserve that.

Maybe proximity is the most important thing. To simply be close by. It’s true when friends lose a loved one, isn’t it? You can’t do much, but you’re there. The same seems true in disaster zones. In whatever capacity north of looting, the simply act of lending presence means something to the devastated. Even I, who didn’t lift the tiniest scrap of rubble, who just carried a camera around for a few hours and spoke to a handful of volunteers, was thanked undeservedly on multiple occasions by people who were completely aware all I’d done was document the damage.

As the Uber pulled out of the neighborhood, we passed two girls walking away from area, presumably going home. One of them removed her hard hat and replaced it with a ball cap that’d been stashed in her purse. On the side of it, in glitter paint, was written, “COCAINE PRINCESS.”

But she was there.

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photo: unless you’ve got a badge that reads ‘CNN’, you can’t get closer to a major collapsed building then this. la condesa district of mexico city.

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Malcolm Freberg
Malcolm Freberg
American writer living permanently on the road. Believes rye whiskey is superior to bourbon, Belle is the best Disney princess, and that selfie sticks should be snapped in half on sight. Hosted a travel documentary for AOL & played Survivor a few times.

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