Mexico suffered two devastating earthquakes within weeks. A coastal temblor reached Chiapas and Oaxaca with disastrous damage. Soon thereafter, Mexico City was struck by an earthquake on 19 September 2017, anniversary of the 1985 temblor that also crushed lives, and buildings. In September 1985, 9,500 people died, 50,000 were injured, and 250,000 buildings were destroyed. In September 2017, building codes improved disaster statistics: fatalities were fewer than 1,000 but 3.8 million were without power, 27 buildings collapsed, and all schools were closed (2,000 were damaged). Rescue operations continued at the Colegio Enrique Rébsamen where children and adults perished, and hope raced the clock for those missing, some of whom messaged from within the rubble. Rescuers adopted a gesture requesting silence, saving lives as a result.
Mexico City was originally designed to float. Mexica leaders of the triple alliance that formed ancient Mexico (and gave it its name) ruled an enormous empire stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of (also named after) Mexico. Their choice for capital? An island in the middle of a lake. Lake Texcoco was the largest of five interconnected lakes. The Mexica built Tenochtitlan in the middle of Lake Texcoco, intersecting canal waterways as other cities used streets. Over 200,00 people lived there; 45 government buildings were surrounded by a main temple, ball fields for sport, and Montezuma’s palace of 100 rooms, each with its own bath.
In 1521, conquerors destroyed Tenochtitlan, drained Lake Texcoco, and built Mexico City. Consequences of locating the city on a drained lakebed appeared over time: during the past 100 years, Mexico City has sunk more than 30 feet. But the biggest problem may only now be realized. Since 1975, the area around Mexico City has suffered more than 50 earthquakes. The sedimentary lakebed is a dangerous foundation.
Mexico City’s vulnerability is magnified by its population density coupled with its central position as capital. What other capital cities are similarly susceptible? Tokyo, Japan; Jakarta, Indonesia; New Delhi, India; Islamabad, Pakistan; Manila, Philippines; Kathmandu, Nepal; Port au Prince, Haiti. Doxiadis developed an anti-seismic plan for Pakistan’s new capital. Japan considered seismic implications when building Shinkansen. Now, Tokyo has launched an initiative to build a “spare-battery capital” to preserve essential records and services in an emergency. Mexico City may be particularly suited to such an approach: the heart of the city – the D.F. (Distrito Federal) or CDMX – founded in 1824, has only 9 million people; the greater city population is 20.4 million, and growing. The DF is 500 square miles (1,485 square kilometers): is it movable?
Rebuilding Mexico will follow rescue and recovery. Building codes, especially for schools, hospitals, and multi-story construction, will improve. Decisions may shape destiny. How should essential systems like water, energy, transport, and city planning respond? Meanwhile, to help, here are some options: Topos México, Mexican Red Cross, Direct Relief, Global Giving, and Fondo Unido México.
Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities After Disasters. University of Massachusetts Boston. https://www.umb.edu/crscad
Rebuilding After Disasters: From Emergency to Sustainability. Edited by Gonzalo Lizarralde, Cassidy Johnson, Colin Davidson. Rutledge, 2009.
Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina. Edited by Eugenie L. Birch, Susan M. Yachter. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Podcast: http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/podcast/inex.html#birchwachter/
Watkins, Derek, and Jeremy White. “Mexico City Was Built on An Ancient Lake Bed. That Makes Earthquakes Much Worse.” 22 September 2017. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/22/world/americas/mexico-city-earthquake-lake-bed-geology.html?mcubz=3
Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License