Last week, on the 32nd anniversary of the deadly 1985 earthquake, central Mexico was hit by another powerful temblor. The epicenter struck the bordering state of Puebla but the capital was hit the hardest in terms of deaths and destruction. In total, 320 people died, dozens of buildings collapsed, and thousands more were damaged, leaving countless people homeless. Read on for my experience in the earthquake and what you can do to help:
Experiencing my First Earthquake
Three weeks ago, I moved back to Mexico City. I originally moved to Mexico City last fall and during the months I spent there, I fell in love with this vibrant city, its welcoming people, and rich culture. Then, an unexpected four-month detour took me to Basel, Switzerland. Though I had a wonderful time traveling through Europe and spending time with my family and friends in the states, I was eager to return to my second home.
Two days after returning to Mexico City, I experienced my first earthquake. After running outside in my pj’s, I felt the ground lurch and watched as the candles in the foyer began to sway. It was scary but also kind of exciting. The next day we found out it was an 8.2 magnitude earthquake, the strongest to hit Mexico in over a century. But because it had struck off the southern coast of the country, hundreds of miles away from Mexico City, the capital escaped largely unscathed.
The Deadliest Quake in 30 Years
On September 19th, however, it was a very different story for Mexico City. This time, the 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck much closer to home. This time the epicenter struck the bordering state of Puebla, only about 75 miles from Mexico City.
When the quake struck, I was touring Chapultepec Castle (one of my favorite tourist-y things to do in the city) with my friend Taliya. We were on the second floor of the castle, snapping pics of the beautiful gardens, when I felt the floor tilt beneath my feet. This time it was not a quick jolt but instead a violent, prolonged lurching that sent a shiver up my spine. The best way I can describe it is like being on a boat during a hurricane. In other words, an absolutely terrifying sensation. I grabbed Taliya’s arms and for a few moments we stared motionless at each other. Only the frantic shouts of the security guards broke our trance. I looked up to see chandeliers swinging wildly and ran down the stairs as fast as I could.
Outside of the castle, I watched in horror as clouds of dust rose throughout the city. The Castillo de Chapultepec is built on a high hill, offering visitors one of the best views of the city. As tourists began snapping photos, I became filled with dread. I knew the clouds of dust could only mean one thing– collapsed buildings. The next thing I knew, a huge building erupted in flames right before my eyes. Panic spread throughout the crowd as people began to grasp the severity of the situation. Turning to our phones, we realized we had no service and no way to get in touch with our loved ones.
For about an hour, the guards kept us corralled on the terrace of the castle. Finally, they let us go and we hurried to see what had happened below. The streets were a madhouse but luckily we were in walking distance to Julian’s office in Polanco. I managed to locate him quickly and was so relieved that he was ok. In Polanco, the bedrock is much more stable than it is downtown in neighborhoods like La Roma and La Condesa (which are built where an ancient lake once stood) so this area suffered minimal damage.
Tragically, other parts of the city were not so lucky. In the hours to come, we received photos and videos from friends of buildings collapsing and exploding, roads split in two, and widespread destruction. Tuning into the news, we watched in horror as rescuers dug out people trapped under the rubble.
The next morning, we woke up to find that at least 216 people had been killed, 94 from Mexico City and 21 children in the collapse of a school. President Peña Nieto declared a state of emergency and schools and businesses across the city were closed. We were anxious to help and coordinated with our friends to figure out where we were needed most.
Mexico’s Incredible Response
From the onset of this tragedy, I was amazed by the overwhelming response of the Mexican people to help their fellow countrymen. The following quote started circulating: “Only in Mexico could the result of natural disaster be that traffic jams form towards rather than away from the disaster zone.” Having been there myself, I can tell you it’s true. When I visited La Condesa (one of the hardest hit areas) the day after the quake, I saw thousands of Mexicans working together and doing whatever they could to help.
Highly-trained “topos” (Spanish for moles) worked around the clock to free victims trapped under the rubble, people formed human chains to remove debris, and doctors and psychologists offered their services free of charge. Overnight, hundreds of Centros de Acopio popped up across the city to collect and distribute much-needed food, medicine, and supplies. Lines to give blood went around the block. In fact, when I tried to donate I was turned away because the hospital had more than enough! Even rescue dogs joined in, including Frida, the now-famous lab who played a critical role in locating people trapped under the rubble. Never before had I seen anything like this. If you want to see what I’m talking about (and restore your faith in humanity), click here. It was a remarkable sight and I think it speaks volumes about the character of the Mexican people.
Relief Efforts in Jonacatepec
This past weekend, a group of friends and I traveled a few hours outside of the city to assist in relief efforts. Since Mexico City had such an abundance of volunteers and resources, we wanted to go somewhere where our help was more urgently needed. In the small town of Jonacatepec, many people are living in structurally unsound buildings because they have nowhere else to go. It will be a long road of recovery for the people of Jonacatepec and they fear they’ll be forgotten in the weeks to come. Unfortunately, this is the case in many pueblos affected by the quake.
What You Can Do to Help
Now, a week after the deadly quake, schools have reopened and people have gone back to work. While the initial urgency has passed, thousands of people are currently without homes. Mexico still has months, and in some cases years, of rebuilding. With so many disasters in the world today you may feel at a loss as to how to help. But I assure you there’s much you can do to help Mexico get back on its feet after these devastating earthquakes. Over the last few days, I have consulted my extensive network of friends, doctors and volunteers on the ground here in Mexico to find the very best organizations you can donate to. I then vetted these organizations and I can guarantee you that the following organizations will make a real difference in the lives of people affected by the quake:
Échale Mexico– This organization has been constructing houses with the help of local communities for over 20 years. Your donations will go towards rebuilding the more than 40,000 houses that collapsed in the earthquakes. Donate here.
Cruz Roja Mexicana– The Mexican Red Cross quickly deployed their teams in the aftermath of the quakes and played a critical role in searching for survivors, transporting the injured to hospitals, providing first aid on the scene, and collecting blood. The Mexican Red Cross works closely with the American Red Cross and you can be assured your money will go towards continuing their important work. Donate here.
Ambulante– Mexican actors Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal are joining forces with respected grassroots organization Ambulante to raise urgently needed funds to rebuild hospitals, schools and homes that have been severely affected by this disaster. Ambulante will receive and distribute 100 percent of the funds directly to local organizations and social initiatives dedicated to helping those most affected by this catastrophe. Donate here.
GlobalGiving– A crowdfunding organization that has pledged that all money donated to its earthquake fund will go to recovery and relief efforts. Donations will initially help first responders meet survivors’ immediate needs. Once initial relief work is complete, funds will be used to support longer-term recovery efforts run by local, vetted organizations responding to this disaster. Donate here.
Fondo Unido México– Part of the United Way network, this organization has created an emergency fund to help the areas affected by the earthquakes as well as the recent series of hurricanes. Donations will help volunteers determine the most urgent needs and then rebuild the more than 1,800 schools, community centers, and homes affected by this disaster. Donate here.