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Model Disaster Preparedness

News story by Susana Seijas, Mexico City

Recalling its monstrous 1985 earthquake, Mexico City trains 10,000 of its civil servants in disaster recovery techniques.

MEXICO CITY – Japan’s cataclysmic March 11 earthquake and tsunami have evoked painful memories of Mexico City’s 1985 quake and made many here reflect on how well prepared the city is for a similar disaster.

earthquake damage“You can never really be ready for a disaster like the 1985 earthquake, or a catastrophe of that magnitude,” says Carlos Morales Cienfuegos, a search and rescue volunteer who pulled people from Mexico City’s crumbled buildings.

Registering 8.1 on the Richter scale, the 1985 quake leveled many buildings and killed at least 10,000 residents when it struck at 7.19 that morning. The quake’s epicenter was located off the Mexican Pacific Coast nearly 400 kilometers away.  But the quake had particular impact on Mexico City as it is densely populated and located on top of an old lakebed.

Rescue Know-How

Cienfuegos, a bearded and wiry 49 year old, has assisted in rescuing people struck by the world’s most horrendous natural disasters, including the January 12, 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, and now the March 11 Japan quake.

Five days after the devastating 8.8 earthquake struck Japan, Cienfuegos landed in Tokyo with his search team known as “Los Topos,” or the “the Moles.” The Moles started off as a self-organized non-governmental group in the Mexico City rubble 26 years ago, and have become a world-famous professional rescue team.

Enlarging the Team

But Mexico City isn’t limiting its response potential to small teams.  In summer 2010 it launched, at the direction of Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a program to train some 10,000 of its own civil servants in risk prevention and recovery.  The effort is a model of the types of prevention campaigns being advanced by the United Nations’ 2010-2011 World Disaster Reduction Campaign.

Ebrard, the city’s mayor since 2006, was 26 years old and already working for the city government when the '85 quake struck. Sitting in his office overlooking Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo, he recalls walking down a street that September morning not far off from where his office is now.

“It was like they had bombed our city, the magnitude of the quake was immense with huge human suffering, so this changed many lives forever and changed your perception of your relationship with the city and with other people,” he says.

Mayor Ebrard even credits the quake with making him the politician he is today, in that it taught him better communication skills and the ability to reach agreements in order to organize a coordinated response, working with people with a whole array of differing ideas and emotions.

After Effects

Many in Mexico credit the quake with the eventual crumbling of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’ s one party rule.  The government was criticized for its slow reaction to the quake’s aftermath, while thousands of ordinary citizens, including Los Topos, carried out rescue efforts.

Every 19th of September the city organizes an earthquake-preparedness drill, preparing rescue brigades, mobilizing schools, businesses and public officials. Last year Ebrard organized a “macro drill” which involved millions of people.

“We have to make it very clear that is isn’t just a ceremony, it could save many lives,” he emphasizes.  “We are preparing 10,000 public servants, working very closely with the UN and its program to mitigate risks.  Mexico City takes this very seriously because of the ‘85 experience.”

Thousands of Mexico City’s civil servants will receive their first-ever training in emergency training through the new program.

Never Forget

“The big challenge now,” said Cienfuegos, the quirky and nimble-bodied rescue team leader, shortly before his departure for Japan, “is that we’re used to not having big disasters in Mexico City since that fateful September morning in 1985.”  It’s easy to forget, he adds, that “in less than 18 seconds, whole blocks were flattened into pancakes.”

Yet the terms of quake preparedness have continued to develop since 1985, he adds.  One example: “We need to know that diving for cover under a desk during an earthquake will not save your life.  You need to get to a ‘vital space, or triangle of life ’ for instance making yourself into a little ball by the side of a tall refrigerator, whatever falls on top of you will fall on the fridge first, protecting you. The worst thing you can ever do during a big tremor is try and exit a building, you just won’t have enough time.”

Heading Mexico City’s new training effort is Mara Robles, the director of the city’s Public Administration School - located, it’s worth noting, in a colonial building that has slanted, uneven floors, thanks to the land subsidence in the historic town center.

Robles explains that although the course is ambitious, it is divided into four sections of civil servants who are receiving training: members of the Mayor’s Cabinet (including ministers of Environment and Civil Protection), civil servants who work as service providers (hospitals, electricity, water), educators, and rescue workers.

A Vulnerable Landscape

“The challenge for us is that Mexico City is one of the world’s mega-cities and as such, has a high level of vulnerability to natural phenomena, including floods, heat waves and earthquakes and we can always improve in our response to these,” says an energetic Robles.  She continues: “A disaster is only a disaster as a consequence of the fallout from a natural phenomenon.  Our aim is to decrease the level of disaster, and the multi-risk effects or chain reactions.”

The least civil servants can do, Robles emphasizes, is to be prepared, study, learn, practice and work to do everything in the government’s power to prevent and recuperate -- to try to make Mexico City as resilient to natural disasters as possible.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks, Robles conceded, is getting Mexico City authorities to build to code.  Corruption is a key problem: “How can we be sure that all these new buildings going up are being built adhering to the latest regulations?”

Mayor Ebrard describes the course as “an ongoing commitment, remembering what we lived through in ‘85.”  He agrees that corruption can be a stumbling block to the city’s efforts: “Construction directors sometimes sign whatever is given them. We simply have to improve and have better control over this. We can save many lives this way.”

In order to minimize the risk from buildings in high risk, the government formed an Institute for Structural Security, hoping its recommendations would save many lives in the event of a tremor.

As a grim reminder, remnants of Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake are still visible in the city’s best neighborhoods.  The Licona family, for example, lives in an apartment building in the Roma, one of the neighborhoods most damaged in the 1985 quake.  A few blocks from the family’s apartment, a whole building lies in a heap of rubble -- untouched since the earthquake except for two elderly homeless women who have carved out bits of rubble in order to get nightly shelter.

More Civic-Minded As A Result

Isis Licona, 26, was only a few months old when the earthquake struck.  But walking past the heap of rubble on her way home every day reminds her of that day. “Because of seeing that every day we have a whole contingency plan in my family. We have copies of our most important documents in a bag by the door and a reunion point in the city were we to get separated,” she says.

Ebrard’s priority is to prepare as many citizens, like the Liconas, for a possible earthquake. The city government just announced it will carry out a series of earthquake drills in all Mexico City schools starting in April, an effort headed by the City’s Civil Protection Ministry.

“We are much better equipped than we were in 1985,” says Ebrard.  “You can’t solve all this in a month, but we have to keep training people responsible for every section of the city. The UN course has had real impact …  in preparing us in case of a possible catastrophe, not only a quake.”

Martha Delgado, the city’s Environment Minister, says the impact from the UN-led initiative is very clear: “It made us all realize that we have great resources, some of which we were not aware of before we started carrying out the training and speaking to various ministries and service providers. The improved communication between us all is preparing us in ways we didn’t imagine.”

But it’s not all preparation and contingency planning. Cienfuegos recalls that September morning: “My team were short of pick axes, the most basic tools. I saw a military truck and asked a group of soldiers for anything they could spare. They were less than helpful.  That wouldn’t happen now. The ’85 quake has made all of us – as a society - much more civic-minded.”

Susana Seijas was previously a Knight International Journalism Fellow at Televisa and a producer for BBC News. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.