Lessons in a quake zone

Back in 2013, I was in Mexico City for a work trip when the light fixtures started swaying in a ground-floor hotel restaurant. In the United States, we’re taught to find a sturdy table to crouch under, or a doorframe to stand in when the earth starts to tremble. So, I did just that, throwing my hands up against one of the hulking doorways of the 1920s building.

Seconds later, waiters and cleaning staff were running past me – in some cases crouching to squeeze through the space between my arms and the floor – to get outside. I looked around at the empty restaurant perplexed and a little amused, and decided I should probably follow.

But, this week, when Mexico City started jerking to a 7.1 earthquake, I was grateful for that lesson in local quake culture. 

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More than 40 buildings were toppled in Tuesday’s temblor, including one wing of a private elementary school. The death toll has reached more than 137 people in Mexico City alone, out of more than 270 nationwide. And in a city like this one, where many neighborhoods are built upon a squishy former lakebed, a building that survives one quake won’t necessarily make it through the next. Getting outside is the priority, even if there are other risks once on the street.

I rushed downstairs as my office began violently shaking Tuesday, meeting up with my daughter and her caretaker outside the front door. We held each other as we walked slowly down a tile pathway toward the building’s front gate, trying to keep our balance. The caretaker called out the Lord’s Prayer in a steady lilt and I peppered her with questions. “Is this big? Is this stronger than the last one?” I asked, referring to the 8.1 quake that rocked the capital just 12 days earlier while I was out of town. My 11-month-old daughter, thankfully, seemed oblivious.

Out on the street, we heard glass breaking, loud snaps, and watched, horrified, as a seven-story building around the corner bounced and swerved, throwing bricks from its façade. The structure didn’t fall, but apartments were visible through the broken walls.

A group of construction workers gathered with us in the middle of the street – as far away from buildings, trees, and electrical wires as we could get – their arms wrapped around each other’s backs to form a human chain.

The moment the earth stopped swaying, the workers were off, like many around the city, jumping in to help trapped residents escape…

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