We are only beginning to understand the full damage of the earthquake in Mexico City: at least 230 dead, including at least 21 schoolchildren; nearly 50 buildings flattened; entire communities without power or cell phone coverage. It’s a grim reminder of just how devastating a seismic event can be. But what is particularly chilling is that this quake could have been much worse.
Monday’s earthquake was an M 7.1. That M stands for “magnitude,” or the amount of energy released in a quake. Magnitude is measured exponentially: in other words, the 1906 quake that leveled San Francisco, an estimated M 7.8, was over eleven times stronger than the one in Mexico this week. The San Francisco quake was by no means the strongest to shake the United States, and seismologists agree the potential for a similar quake to shake our country isn’t just real — it’s also a lot more pervasive than most of us realize.
Earthquakes are not just a Mexico problem. And for Americans, they aren’t solely a California problem. Salt Lake City. Memphis. Los Angeles. New York. Anchorage. Washington, D.C. Seattle. Each of these major cities is at risk for a damaging earthquake — without including the many of smaller municipalities at risk. And in many ways, they are not as prepared as Mexico City.
The recent quake occurred on the 32nd anniversary of the city’s deadly 1985 quake, which killed approximately 10,000 people and destroyed 30,000 buildings. Since then, Mexico has done a great deal to shore up its earthquake preparedness. In 1991, the country launched its earthquake early-warning system — the first in the world, and one that has been emulated by countries like Japan, Taiwan and Romania. With the advent of smartphones, these programs have become remarkably sophisticated: on Monday, hundreds of thousands of individuals in and around Mexico City received texts alerting them to the impending quake. Some had a full minute to duck and cover, to grab go-bags, to locate their children and other loved ones. That doesn’t sound like much time, but those seconds can often mean the difference between life and death — and they are surely part of why Monday’s death toll, while undeniably tragic, wasn’t significantly higher.
In the years after the 1985 quake, Mexico instituted a national earthquake drill program, which residents were practicing in the hours before this quake. Many people undoubtedly survived because they knew how to evacuate a building safely and where to…