Earthquake Diary

It’s not a “Que se vayan todos” moment, but something mutinous is brewing.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

September 19 is already a somber, uncanny day in Mexico, a day of ghosts and repetitions. Every year on the anniversary of the devastating 1985 quake, simulations are held to test the population’s readiness for another disaster. This time, a little more than two hours pass between the simulation and the arrival of the real thing. Where I am, in Polanco, a calm, orderly earthquake drill takes place at 11:00 AM: all alarms and systems and checklists function as they are supposed to. Then, at 1:14 PM, the whole room tilts—it feels as if I am suddenly seasick—and a few seconds later the earthquake alarm begins to sound, a man’s voice repeating the words “alerta sísmica, alerta sísmica.” I leave the building, heading down the street toward the assembly point, just about keeping my balance as the ground rolls now to the left, now to the right, under my feet. A small crowd of people from the surrounding buildings gathers at the center of a crossroads, away from apartment blocks and power lines, to be accounted for. Everyone exudes stunned disbelief, as if the eeriness of the coincidence made it hard to credit that this had happened. Today, of all days, again, in this place? The coincidence is all the more astonishing because just twelve days before, Mexico had suffered an earthquake that flattened tens of thousands of homes in Chiapas and Oaxaca, two of the country’s poorest states. Probability, it turns out, is no defense against disaster; and not only does the occurrence of one tragedy not protect you from the next, it doesn’t even buy you much time.

I walk back toward the apartment I’m staying in, in Colonia Roma. For that I have to pass through Condesa, which turns out to have been among the areas most affected. A strange quiet in the streets, despite the crowds of people scattered here and there—the palpable relief among those who had escaped unscathed combining with apprehension about the coming consequences: how many buildings will have collapsed, how many casualties would there be? Some streets have been cordoned off, with crowds fleeing unstable buildings or gas leaks. There are clusters of people standing on the sidewalks, but others are already moving around purposefully: I see small groups of men and women in hardhats, high-vis jackets, gloves, and facemasks hurrying around different parts of the Avenida Amsterdam and the Parque México. Barely an hour has elapsed since the quake and already there is an army of brigadistas, volunteer rescue workers, starting to clear rubble and organize emergency shelters and supplies. In the Parque México, I join a human chain ferrying food, water, and medicine to the center of the park—water in containers of all sizes, rolls of toilet paper, biscuits, sliced bread—and then sit with the rest of the crowd, trying to get news on what has just happened. The scale of the damage is starting to become apparent, and a few car radios are on loud enough to hear scraps of information as they emerge: addresses of fallen buildings, the magnitude of the quake, the epicenter. But cell phones mostly still don’t work, and it is almost impossible to contact anyone who isn’t right in front of you.

Darkness falls, and the neighborhood is without electricity or water supply. Though it looks undamaged, it isn’t yet clear if the building I’m staying in is structurally sound. Two blocks away on San Luis Potosí an apartment block has collapsed, and a crowd has formed around it—residents, families, volunteers. The only places that have power are a couple of banks, and the vestibules for their ATMs are crowded with people charging their phones. Through the gloom, figures wearing hardhats and facemasks and carrying shovels, picks, and crowbars emerge, asking for directions to one or the other scene of ongoing rescue work. Cars and motorbikes pull over offering rides to anywhere volunteers need to go; further up Insurgentes traffic has thickened to a standstill, much of it cars carrying more volunteers or supplies, their back windows or sides bearing cardboard signs saying Traigo ayuda (“I’m bringing help”). After hours of trying to find me, my cousin finally manages to make contact—I can now get phone signal for a few seconds at a time—and offers to come and pick me up. I’m fortunate in being able to take shelter with relatives, in my case to the southwest, a fair way up one of the sides of the bowl-shaped valley in which Mexico City sits. Solid ground, apparently unmoved by the quake; it’s as if I’ve arrived in a parallel universe.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

I spend the whole of the day after the quake watching the news, which itself seems to be caught in a kind of post-traumatic loop, endlessly circling back to the same few places, the same lack of real information, the same hopes that people will be pulled from the rubble alive. The Televisa coverage is especially obsessed with a collapsed private school in the south of the city—named after an obscure Swiss-Mexican educator, Enrique Rébsamen, who has now, sadly, been granted another few years of public renown—and the possibility that a young girl will be rescued. (The next day it turns out that the girl, known as “Frida Sofía,” never existed, and the person trapped under the rubble was more likely to have been a member of the school’s administrative staff; it’s impossible to ignore the elements of class disdain in the outburst of public anger that follows this discovery.) The coverage is at times difficult to follow: hard to tell which part of the city we are seeing, hard to know whether the images are live or from hours earlier. But in the midst of the confusion, there are moments of awful clarity and concentration: the eerie pauses when the rescue workers demand silence, to listen for survivors beneath the rubble. Everyone stops what they are doing and becomes totally still; even the studio anchors stop talking. The sign used to convey this is a fist raised in the air, the gesture spreading from one person to another and then another like a salute, as dozens and dozens at each rescue site freeze to leave room for a voice, a hope, a life.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Even though the September 7 quake in southern Mexico was one of the strongest on historical record, here in Mexico City talk veers constantly back to 1985. Media commentators and newspapers compare the scale of the damage; my aunt recounts her experiences from thirty years ago instead of talking about what has just happened, as if the quake has shunted her short-term memory onto another track. Those who weren’t born yet in 1985 nonetheless grew up in its shadow: all the earthquake safety measures Mexico now has, all the sensors and simulations and meeting points marked on pavements, were a response to that disaster. More than a point of comparison, though, 1985 was a formative moment in Mexico’s modern political history. The official response to that earthquake had been so colossally inept—so inadequate to the task of saving lives, let alone reconstructing the country—that the governing PRI’s legitimacy was, in the eyes of many, irrevocably damaged. A huge popular mobilization emerged to fill the vacuum left by the state, thousands upon thousands of volunteers taking on the work of rescuing people from the rubble and providing food and lodging for survivors. Three years later, in 1988, the PRI retained the presidency only thanks to blatant election rigging, against a candidate backed by many of the civic associations that had formed in the aftermath of the quake. These organizational legacies of 1985 resurfaced with astonishing speed in 2017: many of the volunteer groups that sprang into action after the quake are directly descended from those set up three decades ago. The outpouring of public solidarity after Tuesday’s quake was also an echo of 1985—the massive mobilization then setting a standard for mutual support now.

All natural disasters are eminently political events; what would the consequences of this one be? Today, Mexico again has a PRI president, Enrique Peña Nieto. Five years into his six-year term, his legitimacy is already humiliatingly reduced: he has, among many other failings, proved completely unable to stanch the flow of casualties from the “war on drugs” launched by his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, and since 2014 has presided over a shameful cover-up of the events that led to the disappearance of the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa. But for now, he is not the main target of popular anger. It’s the entire political class. When interior minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong put in an appearance last night at the scene of a collapsed building in Colonia Obrera, surrounded by security guards, he was booed and harried away by the crowd. The hostility is rooted in a suspicion of the state in any form—unsurprising in a country where state agencies have been either complicit in or responsible for many of the worst crimes of recent decades, from disappearances of leftists during the 1960s and 1970s to modern-day entanglements with drug lords.

Public outrage isn’t only directed at the ruling PRI, though. Harsh words are quickly directed at the other main parties, too—the PAN (the Catholic center-right party of Calderón and his predecessor Vicente Fox), the PRD (the center-left party that had the presidency stolen from it in 1988), and even MORENA (a further-left formation led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who as the PRD’s candidate had the presidency stolen from him by Calderón in 2006). The reason has to do with the state funding all the parties receive. The system is ostensibly designed to avoid corruption and corporate capture of the political system; in practice it means torrents of Mexican taxpayers’ money are being funneled to campaign funds, and from there to advertisers and the media. The day after the quake, demands start to circulate on social media for the parties to donate these funds to post-earthquake recovery efforts—the hashtag #PartidosDenSuDinero (“Parties, Give Your Money”) goes viral. But there’s a catch: the Mexican Constitution apparently forbids the parties from using the money they have received for non-party purposes. No one doubts that a way around this convenient clause can be found; the only question is what kind of excuses the parties offer, and how long they keep up the pretense. The public mood bodes ill for most of the main parties ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections: already in deepening discredit, the PRI, PAN, and PRD—which between them hold most offices across the country at federal and state levels—will likely lose more ground to López Obrador’s MORENA. It’s not yet a “Que se vayan todos” moment—“Out with all of them!”—in the spirit of Argentina in 2001; but something mutinous is brewing.

Friday, September 22, 2017

It’s as if there are now two cities, interwoven with each other. One of them is still raw with grief and consumed with the desperate search for survivors; buildings lie crumpled onto their foundations, streets are cordoned off—in many places the army and marines have moved in, shutting out volunteers—and families are living in the streets until their buildings have been checked by Protección Civil, the government agency responsible for post-earthquake safety. The situation in Condesa, Roma, and a few other neighborhoods dominates the TV news, but things are much worse in less wealthy parts of the capital—notably Xochimilco in the south—and in Morelos and Puebla, closer to the epicenter.

But alongside the damaged city—sometimes literally next door to it—there is another one in which life is already returning to normal. Shops are open, public transport is functioning, people are returning to work; in fact, the overwhelming majority of the capital’s buildings are unscathed, with not so much as a broken window. I walk through Narvarte, where for entire blocks one could be forgiven for thinking it was an ordinary lunchtime, only to then find a street cordoned off with yellow tape, trucks full of debris, a building with cracks running across its façade; some of the shops that are open bear handwritten signs saying Centro de Acopio—collection points for aid and supplies, destined either for Mexico City itself, Morelos, Puebla, Chiapas, or Oaxaca. The items needed range from picks and shovels and hydraulic jacks to basic medicines, disposable gloves, and syringes. I’m probably not alone in feeling both tremendously lucky and confused, unable to make reality cohere again: it’s as if we’re stuck, like Schrödinger’s cat, in a place where the earthquake both has and has not happened. But then, in a society as unequal as Mexico’s, most of the divides the earthquake might seem to have opened up already existed. The day before the quake, I read a report in Proceso magazine quoting official figures for 2016, according to which 53.4 million Mexicans—more than 40 percent of the population—were living in poverty, and of those, 9.4 million in extreme poverty.

Amongst the welter of dire news—whole towns all but flattened in Morelos, Puebla and Mexico State, with thousands rendered homeless—Reforma carries a story about a family in rural Morelos that responded to the earthquake by taking up what would seem to be a pre-Columbian tradition. The only thing that can calm the earth when it shakes, they tell the reporter, is to be touched by the hands of children. So this family lowered their children to the floor even as it rocked beneath them. I wonder: Were the children terrified? Or did they feel less afraid than their parents, because at least they were doing something they thought might make a difference?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

This morning, at 7:53 AM, another earthquake—this time a 6.1, its epicenter near the coast in southeastern Oaxaca. Still sleeping at my cousin’s house, I don’t even know about it until a couple of hours later, when I see the news. Today’s quake, it turns out, is an aftershock from September 7; and both are unrelated, geologically speaking, to the one from September 19. (The Spanish word for aftershock is réplica, literally “reply,” though the English false friend here, “replica,” suggests repetition; the word for “simulation,” meanwhile—Baudrillard would surely approve—is simulacro.) I read some of the scientific analyses that have started to appear, like everyone else suddenly thinking about seismic waves, oscillations, magnitudes. Mexico City is built on top of what used to be a series of enormous, interconnected lakes, which the Spanish drained and filled in with rubble during the colonial era. This is what makes earthquakes especially dangerous here: shockwaves that would ordinarily make any kind of ground shake turn what lies beneath Mexico City into jelly. Maps are produced showing the latest pattern of damage superimposed on the outline of the former lakes; almost all the collapsed and damaged buildings lie within their boundaries, toward the western edge. One seismologist writing in Nexos speculates that the effects of the earthquake might have been felt more strongly there because what used to be water was shallower at that point, somehow amplifying the seismic wave.

There are other geological puzzles. Most earthquakes in Mexico originate from the southern coast, in the subduction zone of the Cocos plate. I’m told that the country’s seismic alarms, set up after the 1985 quake, which originated off the coast of Michoacán, are geared to this likelihood, which is why they only sounded after the quake had begun on September 19—the seismic wave wasn’t coming from the expected direction. Each disaster, it seems, brings a leap in geophysical knowledge: it was only after the 1985 quake, for example, that seismologists fully understood the horrific intensifying effects of the city’s construction on top of rubble piled in a lakebed. This time seismologists are unpicking the complexities of the different waves, with different oscillation frequencies, of which the seismic event consisted. Later a friend tells me that a previous generation of seismologists imagined earthquakes as a release of accumulated geological pressure, which had built up in linear fashion, making it possible to anticipate the likeliest epicenters of a future quake. Now, the idea of linearity has been discarded, and the consensus is that seismic events can’t meaningfully be predicted—they could happen at any time. It seems cheap, but it’s hard not to see this shift of paradigms as falling into line with wider trends—the demise of Grand Narratives, the shift from the steady accumulation of the Fordist era to the wild fluctuations of financialized capitalism.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The city had already been decked with flags for the Independence Day celebrations the weekend before the earthquake. Now, the Mexican news media, Twitter, and Facebook are awash in expressions of national unity, solidarity bleeding readily into patriotism. And in any case, that solidarity is taking divergent forms, correlating all too neatly with social class. The volunteers arriving in Condesa, Roma, and elsewhere seem mostly to be from less well-off areas, giving their time, labor, and what few material resources they possess to the rescue efforts. Street vendors and restaurants have been providing free meals to brigadistas; a florist’s stand on Michoacán has even been handing out free bouquets. Wealthy Mexicans are mainly donating money—in many cases channeling it through the foundations of one or other media network or oligarch, who have promised to multiply donations received. (Carlos Slim, for example, has promised to give five pesos for every peso donated.) The problem is that funds and resources have flowed disproportionately to Mexico City, and within it to the better-off areas; many civic organizations and charities are trying to funnel more of it to Morelos and Puebla, and to Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Chiapas, where the September 7 quake destroyed homes, schools, and infrastructure in areas already desperately lacking all these things. It’s clear that the recovery will only deepen Mexico’s existing inequalities.

Monday, September 25, 2017

I return to the apartment I was staying in before the quake, in Colonia Roma. The neighborhood looks back to normal in some places—shops open, food stalls crowding the pavements along Insurgentes—but some blocks are still closed to traffic. White tents, tarpaulins, and people in hardhats crowd San Luis Potosí where it meets Insurgentes; there is a collapsed building on that block, and a combination of armed forces personnel, rescue experts, and volunteers are still working through the wreckage. The same a few minutes’ walk away, at Avenida Alvaro Obregón 286, where as many as forty people are still reported trapped in the rubble; though hopes are now vanishingly slim that anyone will be found alive there.

Since even before the weekend the government has been trying to discourage volunteers from showing up at rescue sites, turning away brigadistas and asking the population to leave things to the experts. But in many areas the state response has been slow: people are sleeping on the streets or in parks, surrounded by their possessions, because their buildings are still unsafe, and they have no idea if or when they will ever return home. In San Antonio Alpanocan, a small town in Puebla, at the foot of the volcano Popocatepetl, even three days after the quake no official aid of any kind had arrived, and what support there was came from volunteers. The public pressure on Mexico’s main parties has paid off, though: they have dutifully pledged to donate anywhere between 20 and 50 percent of their campaign funds for reconstruction (though given the different sizes of their campaign budgets, these are wildly different amounts). Meanwhile, the building of the Mexican Congress of Deputies remains closed; though it has been certified as structurally sound, it suffered minor damage that will need to be made good. The repairs, La Jornada reports today with an unbeatable deadpan, will require the temporary removal of a mural titled El pluralismo político.

Tuesday, September 25, 2017

A week on from the quake, I walk through parts of Condesa and Roma. The pavements in front of many apartment blocks are marked out as unsafe with yellow tape, the buildings emptied of their inhabitants. Along Sonora and Amsterdam, there are scatterings of soldiers, guarding crossroads or sitting in olive-green trucks. These troops aren’t there to help with the actual rescue work: they are there to reassure the owners of some of the capital’s most expensive real estate—to protect one part of the population from another. I was warned against returning to the Roma apartment, even after Protección Civil had deemed the building safe. The arrival of so many volunteers from elsewhere in the city has awakened a kind of class panic among the wealthier residents: the socio-spatial hierarchy has been disrupted.

The presence of so many armed personnel on a city’s streets would be unsettling at the best of times. Here and now, it has a doubly alarming effect. Today is the anniversary of the disappearance of the forty-three student-teachers from Ayotzinapa. Their parents and several credible investigative reporters all insist that the army played a central role in their abduction. The government’s refusal to allow army personnel to be questioned by an international panel of forensic experts was one of the keystones of the cover-up. Back in 2014, the slogan taken up by many protesters after the students disappeared—“Fue el Estado”—pointed to where they felt ultimate responsibility lay. The students have still not been found, but the number of other bodies that have been dug out of Mexico’s soil since then is simply staggering. This year alone, in March, an extensive burial ground was discovered just outside Veracruz, which turned out to contain 274 bodies; in June, 14 bodies were found in a mass grave in Baja California; in August, another 14 were discovered in the state of Zacatecas. Other such mass graves litter the countryside. September 19, and September 7 before it, brought tremendous damage and trauma from which it will take some time to recover. But there is another emergency rocking the country, now more than a decade old: the government’s supposed “war on drugs,” the duration and death toll of which exceed those of the Iraq War. Its individual tremors are perhaps too small to register on the national scene—one death, a handful of disappearances at a time—but it is relentless in the devastation it has caused, and its aftershocks will keep coming, and coming, and coming.

Any proceeds from this article will be donated to the Mexican Red Cross

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