Earthquakes Unite Mexico

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Rescuers raise their clenched fists in homage to a man who survived the quake but died before they were able to reach him during the search for survivors at a flattened building in Mexico City.

In September, less than two weeks apart, two major earthquakes shook Mexico. As a result, there were more than 350 deaths and over 7,500 affected properties. Despite the inevitable reconstruction that most of the country will have to face, the political world is experiencing unexpected positive effects due to this tragedy. When a large earthquake hit Mexico in the late 1980’s, the politicians hid from the people, the country never truly recovered and the people were enraged. After the tragedy last month, it is clear that politicians have learned from their past mistakes. 

In 1985, the earthquake that shook Mexico also shook its political world. Alejandro Hope, a Mexican political and security analyst who was 14 years old at the time, stated that the government “pretty much disappeared for the first 24 hours.” At least 10,000 people were killed in this tragedy, and the government did not provide aid to the victims. Even with the help of thousands of volunteers, the damage was irreversible. Another irreversible effect was President Miguel de la Madrid’s reputation. When he rejected foreign aid after the earthquake, it began his slow political demise.

After the people’s distrust in President de la Madrid began, an entire political reformation took off. Residents who lost their homes began running for public office; they started as neighborhood leaders and advanced into city-wide politics. A liberal cause began to spread and fought back against the Institutional Revolutionary Party—a political party founded in 1929 to represent the new power structure that emerged after the Mexican revolution. The left eventually won Mexico City’s mayoral election in 1997 and has been in power ever since. This shift in political power was the basis for the vastly different government response after September’s earthquakes.

The first earthquake last month occurred just off the Central Mexican coast and had an 8.2 magnitude. It started late at night on September 7th, while most people were asleep. Chiapas and Oaxaca, two of the most impoverished states in Mexico, also the closest to the epicenter of this earthquake, were hit the hardest. The day after the initial quake, sixty-one were reported dead and more injured. About 1.85 million homes lost electricity and remained dark as multiple aftershocks rippled through the surrounding area. Most of these aftershocks only reached a magnitude of 5.0, causing much less destruction than the original quake. Unfortunately, the next week, another earthquake caught the population off guard.

The second earthquake, with an epicenter 650 kilometers away from the original and this time directly under Central Mexico, had a 7.1 magnitude. It occurred on September 19, the 32nd anniversary of the strongest earthquake in Mexican history. Behzad Fatahi—professor of geotechnical and earthquake engineering at the University of Technology Sydney—stated that this quake was not an aftershock of the one two weeks before because they usually do not occur hundreds of kilometers away. Due to happening directly on land, the death toll was much higher than the earthquake a week earlier. A total of 326 people died after a multitude of buildings in Mexico City collapsed. 

The people were prepared to face this earthquake as they had thirty years ago, without government aid. But after the earthquake, they realized how much their politicians had learned from the mistakes of the past. Enrique Peña Nieto, the current president of Mexico, was very present on social media as soon as the shaking began, spreading information and safety tips. The day after the quake, President Peña Nieto visited Juchitán, a town in southeastern Oaxaca. 

It is also evident that the country has begun to enforce safety measures to better handle natural disasters. Mexico City, prone to earthquakes because it is built upon a soft foundation, has a system to alert residents of incoming disasters. On the morning of the first earthquake, alarms blared throughout the city, waking and warning citizens. This newly implemented system reduced citywide panic and limited the overall death toll.

Although the earthquakes in Mexico were a tragedy, leaving over 300 dead, they represent an actual change in how actively the Mexican government reacts to disasters within the country. The response in 1985 was much different and far worse than that seen last month. Mexican officials and politicians have made it known that they are there to help their citizens, whether it be through strictly enforcing building codes or practicing emergency evacuations. These changes have earned them back the trust of their people. The question remains: will Mexican officials remain active in the problems of the people, such as economic inequality and widespread local corruption, or will they return to their elevated positions after the memories of September’s earthquakes dissipate?

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