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A Former San Franciscan on the Chilling Message of the Mexico City Earthquake

Why the same devastation could happen here.

Workers and soldiers in Mexico City signal for silence as they try to listen for people buried beneath the rubble following the September 19 earthquake.

 

I never gave much thought to the structure of the buildings in my newly adopted home of Mexico City. I was more interested in the colorful murals painted on them. Mexicans have a unique relationship with death, and many of the murals depict the living communing with the dead in quotidian ways—strolling down the street together, sharing a meal, playing music.

But for the past few weeks, as I walk around town, I barely notice the murals that once stopped me in my tracks. Instead I obsess about what’s in the walls behind them. As I pass a building with a massive crack running down it, I wonder: Is that concrete reinforced with sufficient steel? I look into an empty lot where a seven-story building stood only weeks ago and think, Was it properly retrofitted? That particular site is where an American photographer and his Mexican wife, also a photographer, lived; where they scrambled to the roof to avoid being trapped under thousands of pounds of concrete, only to have the building pancake under them. He survived; she did not.

These are the kinds of thoughts I have now, after living through a 7.1-magnitude earthquake that killed at least 369 people, including 255 in Mexico City. I moved here in May from San Francisco, where I’d worked as a metro reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. I’d wanted to return to Latin America ever since living in Chile at age 20. When I visited Mexico City a couple of years ago, I thought, This is my place. The city felt like a bigger, edgier version of San Francisco. It was chaotic and electric, and I was drawn to its frenetic energy. The street vendors mixed with the café culture, and there was mezcal to be drunk for any occasion. At 33, I knew that if I didn’t take a leap and move now, I probably never would.

For the first four months here, life was smooth. I found an apartment, made friends, had freelance work, and drank fresh fruit shakes from the stand outside my building every morning. Then, on September 7, I experienced my first earthquake. I was walking home with a friend through the up-and-coming Colonia Juárez neighborhood when the street started to shake. It was more surreal than scary: Fathers poured into the streets with their babies in their arms, while dancers from a local strip club came streaming outside. It was a monster, magnitude 8.1 (the 1906 San Francisco quake was a 7.8). But it didn’t hit especially close to home: The greatest damage was in Oaxaca and Chiapas, more than 300 miles away.

That earthquake, while devastating, didn’t affect me personally. On September 19, I found out firsthand what it’s like to live through a natural disaster. When the earthquake hit at 1 p.m., I was interviewing a source on the phone in my eighth-floor apartment in the neighborhood of Condesa. I thought, This can’t be happening—we just had one! But the shaking got stronger with each passing second. In California, they teach you to stay inside, to stand in a doorway or to duck under a desk. In Mexico, the common practice is to run outside. Everyone here remembers the horrific 1985 quake that killed 10,000 people when hundreds of buildings crumbled.

I half ran, half stumbled down the convulsing stairs, barefoot, glass windows shattering around me. An older woman was also struggling to get down the stairs, but in my panic, I didn’t even stop to help. I don’t have time, I thought. The building is going to fall any second! The building didn’t fall, and it is with no small measure of shame that I recall that moment of panic.

For me, perhaps the most profoundly disorienting thing about the earthquake was how casually it mingled banal, everyday life with inconceivably vast disruptions. Now, just a few weeks later, my neighborhood looks basically the same. Except that three blocks down the road, a seven-story apartment building has disappeared. A few blocks in the other direction, a six-story office building is gone. And all around, there are empty apartment buildings and storefronts. Many of my neighbors are gone—maybe dead, maybe dispersed; I don’t know.

Earthquakes are violent, intense acts of nature that remind us that we, and the structures we create, are temporary. But living through last month’s earthquake has taught me something (besides the fact that I may want to consider moving somewhere away from the Ring of Fire): We can prepare for them. Some death and destruction can be avoided. But to do so requires money and political will. And this lesson is as applicable to San Francisco as it is to Mexico City.

One of the biggest tragedies of the earthquake was the collapse of a private grade school in Mexico City, which killed 26 people, 19 of them children. It appears that the building collapsed like a house of cards under the weight of added floors that lacked sufficient steel support. The building likely wasn’t retrofitted as Mexican law requires.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to imagine this kind of catastrophe happening in San Francisco. A 2013 city report found that as many as a third of private schools in San Francisco could “perform poorly” during an earthquake—and that for another quarter, there wasn’t enough information to determine how they would fare. There is no requirement that private schools be seismically retrofitted. That could just as easily have been a San Francisco school that fell.

Earthquakes don’t discriminate. They don’t single out the poor neighborhoods where we’ve been conditioned to expect—and maybe even tolerate—ruin and destruction. Among the hardest-hit areas in Mexico City were the hip neighborhoods of Roma and Condesa. They’re built on an ancient lake bed of soft soil that isn’t stable during an earthquake. The San Francisco equivalent is the Marina neighborhood: It’s built on landfill that is susceptible to liquefying during an earthquake. (The Marina, along with SoMa—also built on landfill—suffered the most damage and loss of life in the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. In a 7.1 quake, like the one that hit Mexico City, the damage could be far worse.)

Nor should San Franciscans reassure themselves that the Mexico City catastrophe could only happen in a developing country. Mexico has some of the most stringent building codes in the world. It has an advanced earthquake early warning system. (The alarm sounded, although because the quake hit so close to Mexico City, it didn’t give people much of a head start.) The Bay Area, one of the world’s most high-tech regions, doesn’t.

 

The earthquake has shaken up more than buildings. It has ripped fault lines through Mexican society and politics. The day of the earthquake and in the weeks after, I witnessed spectacular acts of generosity. People didn’t wait for the state to take charge. They did it themselves. Residents lined up for hours to pass buckets of rubble. Those who couldn’t do physical labor brought food. When it became apparent that Mexico City had enough help, its people spearheaded efforts to bring tools and supplies to the hard-hit areas outside of the city. Amid such destruction and sadness, I witnessed the best of humanity. Yet at the same time, anger at the Mexican government and politicians is at a fever pitch. One political leader was reportedly chased through the streets as residents threw stones.

One can easily imagine similar anger erupting in San Francisco. After all, this is a town that booed Mayor Ed Lee at his own inauguration in 2016, and where Nancy Pelosi was shouted down at her news conference on the Dream Act. Crisis can breed fury as well as unity. There’s no way to prevent all the damage of a massive earthquake, but there are things the city should be doing. If avoidable damage occurs when the next big one hits the Bay Area, people may justifiably ask: Why didn’t the city do more to protect its residents?

But politics, blame, and the parallels with my former hometown are not the main things on my mind these days. Rather, it’s a terrible feeling of loss. The sadness has taken time to sink in. The adrenaline of the first few days has faded, and now I am left contemplating what, and who, was lost. I walk around my neighborhood gaping at vacant lots. I’m not the only one. It’s as if everyone here wants to move on, and yet we can’t stop talking about it. We are possessed.

Four days after the earthquake, I went to the burial of Elizabeth Esguerra Rosas, the 48-year-old photographer and educator who died in the collapse of the Condesa apartment, three blocks from my building, that also seriously injured her husband. I watched as her mom and dad threw rose petals onto her casket, honoring a daughter lost too soon. A crowd of a few dozen sang softly, their voices barely rising above the banging of construction across the street. Elizabeth’s five-year-old daughter, Amara, said goodbye at the funeral home. Attendees wrote notes on slips of paper for Amara to read and remember her mother. Then she climbed into the back seat of a car, wearing a pink shirt and pink leggings. She clutched a plastic jar of Hershey’s Kisses as the car sped away.

Hitting Close to Home
The 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City may have been 2,000 miles away from San Francisco, but its lessons can—and should—be absorbed here. “These kinds of disasters serve as a wake-up call,” says Gabriel Metcalf, president and CEO of the regional planning organization SPUR. Here, a few of San Francisco’s greatest areas of vulnerability:

NON-DUCTILE CONCRETE BUILDINGS
Older concrete buildings are among the most liable to collapse in an earthquake. San Francisco has no official count on these brittle structures. In 2015, L.A. required 1,500 such buildings to get seismic upgrades—a first step we would be wise to follow.

LARGE SOFT-STORY STRUCTURES
These are poorly supported, multi-unit buildings usually built over garages. A 2013 San Francisco law requires owners of wood-framed, soft-story structures with five or more units to bring their buildings up to date. Owners have until 2020 to complete the retrofits. Some 4,900 such buildings exist in San Francisco, housing one in nine residents.

OLDER, SMALLER WOODFRAMED UNITS
As many as 47,000 residents would be made safer if owners of small wood-framed buildings (often with three or four units) carried out retrofits, according to the city’s Earthquake Safety Implementation Program. But there’s no law requiring it, and property owners have pushed back over concerns about the cost.

PRIVATE SCHOOLS
Private schools, where one-third of the city’s schoolchildren are enrolled, don’t face the same seismic standards as public schools. The city has given such schools until November 1 to document their earthquake vulnerabilities, but they aren’t required by law to undertake any retrofits.

INFRASTRUCTURE
Building collapse isn’t the only worry in an earthquake. Clean water, electricity, and transportation become concerns, too. The city has been working toward strengthening “redundancies”—duplications of critical components of the system—such as ensuring that enough ferries and buses are online in case of an emergency. But much work remains to be done.

For more on disaster preparedness, visit sf72.org; for more on seismic retrofitting, visit the Department of Building Inspection website at sfdbi.org

 

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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