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World - Americas

Mexico City learns from the past quakes

Mexico City
Mexico City authorities revised building codes only days after the 1985 earthquake that led to the destruction or demolition of approximately 6,000 buildings  
CNN's Harris Whitbeck looks at how Mexico rebuilt after the devastation
Windows Media 28K 80K

August 17, 1999
Web posted at: 8:18 p.m. EDT (0018 GMT)

By Mexico City Bureau Chief Harris Whitbeck

MEXICO CITY (CNN) -- The 8.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City in 1985, killing 10,000 people, was even more powerful than the one that rattled western Turkey on Tuesday. In the nearly 15 years since then, much has been learned about preparation, survival and reconstruction.

Mexico City's landscape -- including hotels, a children's hospital and office buildings -- changed within a matter of seconds. After the dust clouds cleared, all that remained was rubble.

In all, approximately 6,000 buildings were destroyed or demolished.

The quake also changed the way that residents of one of the world's largest urban sprawl areas live.

Within days after the earthquake, city authorities revised building codes. Some structures that were determined unsafe for occupancy were demolished. Others were rebuilt to newer, safer standards.

"Many of them have been upgraded to new regulations (and) that makes at least Mexico City less vulnerable now than it was 15 years ago," Roberto Meli of the National Center for Disaster Prevention said.

Living legacy

A public park now stands on the site of a former downtown hotel. It honors the memory of those who died and reminds the living of the need for constant preparedness.

Where once stood a downtown hotel, today stands a public park that serves to honor those who died in the 1985 earthquake  

When a quake hits now, occupants of public buildings, organized into security squads beforehand, supervise quick evacuations. Earthquake drills are conducted periodically.

Mexico's National Center for Disaster Prevention has installed an alarm system that detects movement under the Pacific Ocean. That's often an indicator of a potential quake.

"The use of the network is to alert critical systems," said Meli. This earthquake early warning system allows authorities to stop the city's subway system a few tenths of a second in advance, possibly saving countless lives.

Despite all the preparedness, enforcement and stricter construction codes, few in Mexico feel ready for the next major earthquake.

"Since nobody knows how one will react in a determined moment, it is difficult for prevention measures to work," said one Mexico City resident.

No matter how vivid the memories of recent past destruction or how extensive official contingency plans are, few can predict the effects of a force of nature.

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Presidency of the Republic of Mexico (English)
National Center for Disaster Prevention (CENAPRED) (Spanish)
National Autonomous University of Mexico
  • Departamento de Sismologia - Seismology Department - Institute of Geophysics, Mexico.(Spanish)
  • Departamento de Sismologia - Seismology Department - Institute of Geophysics, Mexico.(English)
Earthquake Information from U.S. Geological Study
The World-Wide Earthquake Locator
Earthquakes, Plate Tectonics and Structural Geology Resources
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