30 years ago, an earthquake rocked Mexico City — and the entire country

Hotel Regis, Mexico City Sept. 19 1985 (Photo: Google)

MEXICO CITY — Commemorative concerts, art and photography exhibitions, forums on survivors´ issues and inauguration of a new early warning system with 8,200 loudspeakers throughout Mexico City are among the activities and events this week in connection with the 30th anniversary of the 1985 earthquake in the capital.

Mexico City´s government activated the new Seismic Warning System on Friday, Sept. 18, marking the 30th anniversary of the first shocks that killed more than 5,000 people and devastated buildings and infrastructure in the capital and surrounding region. A national earthquake simulation will also be staged on Friday, with 80,000 public employees participating.

Cover of TIME Magazine Sept. 1985 (Photo: Google)
Cover of TIME Magazine Sept. 1985 (Photo: Google)

The National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) has commemorated the 30th anniversary of the earthquake that rocked Mexico City in 1985 with the world premiere of Magnitude 8.1, by Alexis Aranda.

The Mexican composer explained that the 15 minute piece is divided into three movements. The first one bears the name of the piece and alludes to what happened the morning of September 19; the second one, Elegy, approaches sad moments and the pain it left in the country, and the last one, Resilience, shows how to overcome an adverse situation.

The earthquake struck in the early morning of Sept. 19 with a magnitude of 8.1 on the Richter Scale. The sequence of events, which also shook Mexico´s national political system and society, also included a foreshock of 5.2 magnitude the previous May and two large aftershocks, including a 7.5 magnitude temblor on Sept. 20.

Hotel Regis, Mexico City Sept. 19 1985 (Photo: Google)
Hotel Regis, Mexico City Sept. 19 1985 (Photo: Google)

Besides more than 5,000 deaths, the event caused more than USD $3 billion in damage as 412 buildings collapsed and another 3,124 were seriously damaged in the city.

In the hours and days immediately after the first shock, there was an enormous response and solidarity among the city population of 18 million people. Ordinary citizens organized brigades to help with rescue efforts and to provide food, clothing and emotional support to the homeless.

Patients had to be moved from damaged hospitals, especially the National Medical Center. Many of these patients were very ill. 1,900 patients were successfully moved from here, without any deaths, in just four hours.

More than 4,000 people were rescued alive. 9,600 injured people received treatment, including 1,879 who needed hospitalization. Despite the loss of 5,000 hospital beds, there was never a shortage of facilities for the injured. Some of the reason for this was that those with postponable care were discharged, but mostly because the public and private facilities unified de facto during the crisis. There were also people rescued as late as ten days after the initial event.

Tlatelolco, Mexico City, Sept. 1985 (Photo: Google)

The military was deployed to patrol streets to prevent looting after a curfew was imposed. The federal government’s first public response was President Miguel de la Madrid’s declaration of a period of mourning for three days starting Sept. 20.

The earthquake created many political difficulties for the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). The crisis was severe enough to have tested the capabilities of wealthier countries, but the government from local PRI bosses to President de la Madrid himself exacerbated the problem aside from the lack of money.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry declared it would not request aid; it specifically rejected aid from the United States. It was also widely reported in the days after the earthquake that the military assisted factory owners in retrieving their machinery rather than in removing the bodies of dead factory workers.

Chapultepec Avenue, Mexico City Sept. 19, 1985 (Photo: Google)
Chapultepec Avenue, Mexico City Sept. 19, 1985 (Photo: Google)

The public perceived that at many levels of the government, receiving help was determined by one’s standing vis-à-vis the PRI. Those belonging to the party received preference and those considered opposition received the runaround. President de la Madrid refused to cut foreign debt payments to use the money to help with the recovery effort. The government’s response to the earthquake was widely criticized at various levels of Mexican society, being seen as both authoritarian and incompetent.

As most of the collapsed buildings were of recent construction and public works projects, the government was seen at fault due to mismanagement and corruption in these constructions. The government itself realized that it could not handle the crisis alone through already-established institutions and decided to open the process up to “opposition groups”.

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