Remembering and Rebuilding on the Anniversary of Mexico's 2017 Earthquake

6 minutes read time
Ambassador Roberta Jacobson accompanies the Los Angeles Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team at a disaster site in Mexico City, September, 2017.
Ambassador Roberta Jacobson accompanies the Los Angeles Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) team at a disaster site in Mexico City, September, 2017.

Remembering and Rebuilding on the Anniversary of Mexico's 2017 Earthquake

Three weeks into my tour as an Assistant Information Officer at Embassy Mexico City the world shook. It was September 19, 2017, shortly before 1:00 pm and I had just crossed to the other side of the embassy for a courtesy call with my counterpart at USAID. As we thumbed through USAID Mexico's latest program brochure in a small, street-side conference room on the second floor, the sound of Mexico City's earthquake alarms came in through the windows -- not a steady howl like air sirens in the U.S. -- but rather an eerie, low-pitched rolling yaw that, for Mexicans and those that call Mexico home, is every bit as unnerving as the sound of alarm for flash floods or tornados in the U.S.

"Temblor" murmured voices from the cubicles outside our room as the walls began to shake and shift. After a slight pause of shock and recognition, we fled toward the emergency exits. We only made it into the middle of the office before the shaking became so violent that we had to seek cover under a desk. Seconds later we were joined by two other colleagues, including the cubicle's usual inhabitant, who, despite our mutual state of alarm, was taken aback to find us in her workspace.

After the first wave-passed, we turned and hustled down the corridor, eventually reaching the stairs and leaving single-file, down and out of the building. As excruciatingly slow as our exit felt, in reality it lasted only a minute or two. Gathered outside the Embassy on the grass across the street, we began to check in, first with colleagues and floor wardens, then with calls and text messages to families. 

News came. A 7.1 earthquake had hit central Mexico, including Mexico City – one of several quakes over the course of a couple days that rattled the nation, leaving hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. Our Embassy community was lucky in that nobody was badly injured in the quake, but damage was done. Some of our colleagues’ homes were destroyed or uninhabitable. Others would spend many months working with landlords to secure the necessary repairs to move back in. Some still haven't. And none of us are quite the same. Mexico is a place where the land trembles often. When the earthquake alarms sound, you hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

In the days that followed the September 19th earthquake, Mission Mexico shifted from damage assessment to joining the rescue and recovery effort. The message from Washington was clear: engage, assist, and support our southern neighbor. Being a large mission has distinct advantages in a crisis with a full range of interagency colleagues capable of implementing the U.S. government's response.

U.S. Embassy Mexico City’s consular team delivers donated supplies to the Red Cross Mexico distribution point for earthquake assistance in Mexico City, September, 2017. Many Embassy staff and family members also volunteered at the Red Cross and other programs to assist earthquake victims. (State Department photo)

Within 48 hours, USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to support response efforts. The DART comprised of 15 disaster experts from USAID/OFDA, as well as 67 members and 5 canines from the Los Angeles County Fire Department Urban Search and Rescue Team. The U.S. government also flew in several planes loads of food, water and medical supplies. Embassy staff and families volunteered at distribution centers and the U.S. government gave special USAID emergency funding of $100,000 to support the Red Cross in Mexico by providing wheelchairs, walkers, crutches and canes to assist citizens with disabilities impacted by the disaster.

U.S. Northern Command provided equipment and training to federal hospitals in Oaxaca, Chiapas and Morelos -all damaged in the earlier September 7 earthquake. The Operational Center for Contingency Assistance (COPAC) Mobile Medical Units continue to provide temporary support including outfitting nine Mexican brigades with greater capacity to examine, diagnose, and treat patients with updated training and equipment.

Pallets of US aid in the form of food, water and medical supplies coordinated by U.S. Northern Command are offloaded US Air Force cargo planes in Mexico in September 2017. (State Department photo)

As we reach the one- year anniversary of the earthquake, our assistance efforts continue, both big and small. With the immediate crisis over, there is time to focus on the longer term - restoring what was lost and preparing for what may come. This includes support to recover and stabilize the structural integrity and security of one of Mexico's irreplaceable religious buildings damaged in the earthquake: the Ex Convent of Saint Martin of Tours in Puebla.

One year on, some local schools continue to be severely impacted by earthquake damage.  Mexico City's Technical High School # 73, located in Cuajimalpa, on the outskirts of Mexico City, lost classrooms and equipment. The U.S. government helped the school re-equip their computer room, and will support ongoing reconstruction efforts that will continue into 2019.

Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Relations Luis Videgarray meets with members of the Los Angeles Search and Rescue (USAR) team and canine unit at their base of operations in Mexico City, Mexico, September, 2017.

But these efforts are only the latest installation in our continued support for our southern neighbor. What follows is a list of U.S. government earthquake assistance for the year to come:

Support for USAR Team in Jalisco – Planned for late September 2018, the project will help to restore the operational capacities of the USAR team in Jalisco, whose equipment suffered damage following the 2017 earthquakes. The assistance will restore the operational capacities of the State Unit for Civil Protection and Firefighters of the State of Jalisco through specialized equipment donations.

Support for USAR team in Mexico City – A project to re-supply the Rescue and Medical Emergency Squadron in Mexico City. Scheduled for late September 2018, it will help to restore the squadron's operational capacities, which lost critical equipment in the earthquake.

Support for Mexico Secretary of Navy (SEMAR) First Responders – Slated for November 2018, this project will provide USAR training and equipment to first responders of SEMAR, building capacity for potential international rescue operations and capacity building to respond to catastrophic disasters.

Support for Mexico Secretary of Defense (SEDENA) First Responders – Planned for November 2018, this project will provide USAR training and equipment donations to first responders of SEDENA, building capacity for potential international rescue operations and building capacity to respond to catastrophic disasters.

Capacity Building to Conduct Damage Assessments in Mexico City – The U.S. government, through a grant to Miyamoto of California, helped strengthen the earthquake response capacity of Mexico City, by working with local structural engineering associations and public and private sector engineers to conduct detailed structural assessments of earthquake-affected buildings in Mexico.

About the Author: Arthur Evans serves as an Assistant Information Officer at U.S. Embassy Mexico City.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.