The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s ReUrbanism work positions preservation in the larger context of human needs. But society’s ability to meet our most basic needs can be undercut by disasters. We all understand the direct threats that natural disasters pose to our cultural heritage, but we are only beginning to understand how older and historic neighborhoods, by providing residents a sense of stability, can help build stronger more resilient communities. It turns out that connections among neighbors are every bit as important in surviving and flourishing after a disaster as sea walls and seismic codes.
By any measure, 2017 has been a grueling year for natural disasters. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United States has experienced 16 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each so far this year, tying the 2011 record. Together, these 16 events have resulted in at least 326 deaths. But the United States is not alone in facing this onslaught of natural disasters. In September Mexico was battered by two successive earthquakes. First, a massive, 8.1-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Chiapas in southern Mexico on September 7, killing 98 people. This was followed by 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck near Mexico City on September 19 with devastating consequences for the capital and surrounding region.
Mexico City is uniquely vulnerable to earthquakes not because it is especially close to Mexico’s many major faults, but because it was built on a drained lakebed. The Aztecs founded their city of Tenochtitlán on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. Over time, the shallow lake was drained, and the city expanded into today’s sprawling metropolis of 20 million residents. Once dry, the lakebed’s silt and volcanic clay sediments began compacting and subsiding. Over the last century, parts of the city have sunk an astonishing 42 feet, with some neighborhoods currently sinking at a rate of eight inches a year. Such subsidence puts enormous stress on buildings and infrastructure in the best of times; during earthquakes, the historic lakebed amplifies shaking and is vulnerable to liquefaction, often resulting in the spectacular failure of buildings.
Remarkably, the September 19 quake struck just two hours after the annual commemoration and earthquake evacuation drill that mark the anniversary of an earthquake that devastated Mexico City in 1985. In the days following, it became clear that, while severe, the impacts were not as devastating as those of the ’85 earthquake, which lasted for an appalling three minutes and resulted in the collapse of more than 400 buildings and the death of upwards of 10,000 people (nobody is certain of the actual number).
Speaking about her book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, author Rebecca Solnit has said, “For me the insurrectionary possibilities of disaster are what make them really interesting and sometimes positive—Mexico City’s big 1985 earthquake brought a lot of positive, populist, anti-institutional social change.” So, did the ‘85 earthquake and the social changes that ensued prepare Chilangos for the latest earthquake?
This time, 370 people died, including 228 in Mexico City, where 44 buildings were destroyed and many more damaged. The much lower toll suggests that significant progress has been made in the three decades since 1985, but some observers have noted that many new and recently remodeled buildings suffered significant damage or collapse.
Following the 1985 quake, emergency recommendations to strengthen Mexico City's seismic codes were drafted and quickly passed into law. However, the new codes included significant loopholes, including allowance for a construction technique called “flat slab” in which concrete floors are supported directly by concrete columns, rather than by intervening beams. While in theory such buildings should only be approved when they are certified to outperform beam-column construction, lax code enforcement, lack of accountability, and widespread corruption have had tragic consequences. More than half of the buildings that collapsed in Mexico City this fall were built using the flat slab construction method.
I had a chance to see how Mexico City’s recovery was progressing when I visited barely two weeks after the dust settled. Driving in from the airport, it initially looked like the chaotic, vibrant city I have grown to love over numerous visits. But walking around the historic and trendy neighborhoods of Roma Norte and La Condesa that evening, the devastation was hard to miss, with streets punctuated by immense piles of rubble where buildings had once stood. The depth of the tragedy was underscored by bouquets of fading flowers on the sidewalks and a heartbreaking, hand-lettered sign reading, “Out of respect to the victims, pleased don’t take photos.” Cultural clichés can be easily overplayed, but respect for the dead runs deep in Mexican culture.
Still, life goes on in these remarkably vibrant neighborhoods, which trace their current hipster status to the devastation of the ’85 earthquake. Along with the social change Solnit alludes to, the earlier disaster led to major demographic shifts, with initial abandonment eventually leading to rediscovery by a new class of bohemians and entrepreneurs who saw opportunity amid the ruins. Today, Roma Norte and La Condesa struggle with the same tensions between urban renaissance and displacement that neighborhoods from the Mission in San Francisco to Williamsburg in New York City also face.
Mexico City, with its long list of urban ills, is not the first place one would look to find strong social cohesion and resilience. And yet, the moment the ground stopped shaking, residents of all social and economic classes sprang into action, demonstrating a remarkable solidarity amid the chaos and destruction. Looting was notable for its absence. With power out in large swaths of the city, ordinary citizens began directing traffic. Meanwhile, thousands more rushed to the scenes of collapsed buildings carrying plastic buckets, surgical masks, and bottled water, ready to join brigades to remove debris and rescue victims trapped in the rubble.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the rescue efforts were the heroic efforts of los Topos de Tlatelolco (the moles of Tlatelolco”), a volunteer search-and-rescue group that fills in the gaps for overwhelmed and underprepared firefighters, paramedics, police, and military. Spontaneously organized following the ’85 quake, los Topos are responsible for popularizing the gesture of the raised fist, enigmatic to foreigners but well known to Mexicans: it means “Quiet, we are listening for victims trapped beneath the rubble.”
The earthquake also demonstrated the dual role of city parks. In normal times, they offer amenities that enhance urban life, but when disaster strikes, they take on an even more critical role as places of refuge for people fleeing damaged buildings, and as “centros de acopio” (gathering centers) where food, medicine, clothing, rescue supplies, and more are distributed. Two weeks after the earthquake, city parks were filled with both neatly arranged white tents housing government relief services and sprawling, ramshackle tents serving as informal relief centers and offering everything from help finding lost pets to psychiatric counseling, childcare, massages, yoga classes, and even “international gourmet cuisine” for volunteers.
In the coming weeks, these tents will gradually disappear as life returns to normal, but the road to recovery will be long. The September earthquake laid bare longstanding problems that have plagued Mexico City, including persistent inequality, corruption, and environmental degradation. But it also shone a light on Mexico City’s remarkable ability to persevere and even flourish in the face of adversity. As we think about how to make our communities more resilient to natural and manmade disasters in the future, we would be well served to take a lesson from our neighbors.
On the one-month anniversary of the earthquake, Mexico City residents gathered in silence, fists in the air once more. This time the gesture was not to search for the living, but to commemorate the dead. Just as importantly, it was a sign of defiance, announcing that come what may, ¡México está de pie! Mexico is on its feet!
Anthony Veerkamp is the director of policy with the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Preservation Green Lab.