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Mexican capital needs stronger quake protection, says 'Mole' rescuer

Soldiers walk over the rubble of a collapsed building after an earthquake, in Mexico City, Mexico September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

"We can't look at resilience just as disaster management - we have to anticipate and get cities ready for this"

By Sophie Hares

TEPIC, Mexico, Sept 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Mexico City's Topos "Mole" rescuers used sniffer dogs and tunnelled through rubble in a desperate search for people buried alive under tonnes of debris from Tuesday's earthquake, one of their founders said the scale of the damage shows how the city is still unprepared to deal with major tremors.

After working with scores of other young volunteers to save people from the devastation of a major quake in 1985, Fernando Alvarez Bravo helped set up the "Topos Tlatelolco" search and rescue brigade, which deploys in Mexico and overseas.

As of Thursday, its 100 rescuers – who have day jobs such as dentists and lawyers - and five dogs were still combing sites, in the hope of finding survivors, especially the young and old.

Alvarez Bravo said this week's quake "wasn't the one we're waiting for - it's not the strong one".

"The one we're waiting for could shake tomorrow, or in a month or in a year... You have to be prepared," he said, adding the city needed more ambulances and hospital equipment to cope.

"We're seeing a repetition in many cases, the same as 1985 - the damage, the authorities slow to respond and not prepared."

With street speakers to broadcast seismic alerts and mass evacuation drills, the earthquake-prone megacity has invested in reducing the risks of disasters since the 1985 tremor that killed some 5,000 people.

But while newer apartment blocks and helipad-crowned skyscrapers have been constructed to withstand earthquakes, many older buildings remain at risk, said experts.

Tuesday's 7.1 magnitude quake, which killed at least 286 people, brought down more than 50 buildings in the densely packed capital, including a school, and more in nearby states, including Puebla and Morelos.

Volunteers poured onto the streets to help rescue those trapped, forming human chains to remove debris, while donating food and supplies, and opening their homes to survivors.

"The loss of life would have been greater without the public education, without the huge efforts the Mexican authorities have been making," said Robert Glasser, head of the U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

"When there's an earthquake only 180 km (111 miles) from the capital, the best early warning system is not going to give you time to do much."

Hitting exactly 32 years after the 1985 disaster, Tuesday's quake came on the heels of an 8.1 magnitude temblor that shook poorer southern states including Oaxaca and Chiapas earlier this month, leaving at least 98 dead and millions in need of aid.

With more quake-hit buildings at risk of collapse in Mexico City, careful inspections are essential to check for structural weaknesses, particularly in the hundreds of damaged schools, said experts. The governor of Puebla state said up to 1,600 homes would likely be demolished.

"There are limits to what can be done when there's buildings constructed decades and decades ago, (and) there's lots of informal settlements," said UNISDR's Glasser. "It's challenging."


Efforts are needed to strengthen or retrofit buildings in Mexico City, which stands on an ancient, wobbly lake bed that magnifies the impact of any tremors, said experts.

Measures such as adding structural walls, taking out windows and putting in supports are pricey, but substantially improve building safety in earthquake-prone areas, said Mary Comerio, a professor of the graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley.

"What you see in Mexico City... is older concrete buildings that were not built to a seismic standard, and those will fail," she said. "It's very hard in a city the scale of Mexico City to require upgrading of those, but even requirements for new construction in the long run change the risk profile."

Eugene Zapata-Garesché, Latin America and Caribbean director for the 100 Resilient Cities network which helps cities prepare for modern-day challenges, said it can take generations for people to recover from major shocks like earthquakes.

"We can't look at resilience just as disaster management - we have to anticipate and get cities ready for this," he said.


The poorest living on the outskirts of cities and in rural areas are among those most likely to be injured or killed in earthquakes, particularly as many build their own homes without proper structural advice, said experts.

Access to cheaper finance and technical assistance can make homes safer, alongside stricter enforcement of building rules and a crackdown on graft at the municipal level, said Gustavo Gutiérrez-Lee, director for Habitat for Humanity in Mexico.

"Corruption costs not just an extra amount of money, but it costs lives," he said, referring to violations of building codes and shoddy construction materials in states like Oaxaca.

Silvia Novoa, director of aid agency World Vision Mexico, which is helping coordinate quake relief, said disaster preparation and response have dramatically improved in Mexico City since 1985, but other places have made slower progress.

"(Those) most affected are the people who have always been very vulnerable due to lack of education - they build outside of regulations in dangerous areas where it's not legal," she said.

For Alvarez Bravo of the Topos group, whose members helped pull people alive from the debris in Oaxaca, the massive involvement of volunteers in the Mexico City relief effort shows the importance of individuals being ready to act.

"We have to build community response groups, not just (rely on) the government," he said. "You need to make arrangements and be prepared in your own home... You have to take responsibility for your own life."

(Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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