Rising Up from the Rubble: A Look Back the 1985 Mexico City Earthquake

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

There are moments, events in all our lives that are etched in our memories. They are with us forever. The good ones, we gladly recall. The bad ones, we’d like to forget or at least stuff away in some remote receptacle in our minds.

For me, one of those haunting events took place a little over thirty years ago in Mexico City, Mexico. On the morning of September 19, 1985 a magnitude 8.1 earthquake shook the ground beneath the city. More than four hundred buildings collapsed. People died. To this day, no one is quite sure how many. The 144225-004-6BAC8B6Festimates vary wildly from five thousand to thirty thousand.

That night, I was on the ground reporting for CNN. Fires still burned. Smoke rose from every corner of the city. People dazed and in shock stood on the streets, the rubble of homes and businesses around them. All they had left were the clothes they were wearing.

Yet, the image that remains most vivid for me is what transpired over the next week at the city’s Juarez Hospital. It had collapsed floor on top of floor.  Hundreds of doctors, nurses and patients died. Every night we would go there for updates and to watch rescuers dig through the debris. Hundreds of people watched too, some hoping a relative would be pulled free others were just there because there was no place else to go. Huge spotlights run off generators were focused on the building, what was left of it. Every time the rescuers would hear something, a hint of life, the crowd went silent. There were survivor stories. In fact, more than dozen infants were pulled out alive. To this day, they are known as the “Miracle Babies.”

Mexico City was a long time ago and much has changed when it comes to earthquake resilience, awareness, and preparedness. I’d call it “RAP” if it helped get folks attention. Here at home, the focus on educating the public and strengthening infrastructure has never been greater. Look no further than next month when the National Earthquake Conference convenes in Long Beach, California. Held every four years, it brings together scientists, engineers, emergency managers, first responders, insurers; everybody who’s got skin in the game to discuss what’s new, what’s next, and developing a national strategy.

So now you’re raising your eyebrows. A national strategy you ask? Isn’t that like telling people in Alaska they need to worry about hurricanes! Well, unlike hurricanes, just about every state can be impacted by an earthquake. Remember 2011? The epicenter of a magnitude 5.8 was Louisa County, Virginia. If we go back a ways, between December of 1811 and February 1812, three earthquakes all estimated greater than magnitude 7.0 struck the central U.S. along the New Madrid Seismic Zone.  Experts say that area is thirty years overdue for a quake greater than six.

Now, unless you’ve seen it, lived through it, it is impossible to comprehend. But every expert will tell you that being prepared can be a game saver for you and your family. Just knowing the very basics can make a difference. So here’s a pop quiz. Do you know what to do if the ground starts shaking? It’s pretty straight forward…Drop, Cover, and Hold On. What you don’t do is run. Mark Benthien is Outreach Director for the Southern California Earthquake Center at USC. “When people run it’s not necessarily because they are in panic mode. It’s a rational reaction-they’re running because they are afraid of being hurt.” However, research shows people who run are more likely to be hurt. “It’s like running down the center of a plane during heavy turbulence,” Benthien says. The bottom line he adds, “Preparedness is about what you do ahead of time so you can survive and recover afterwards.”

And, the “afterwards” will last a whole lot longer than the event itself. Even in the biggest earthquake in Southern California, Benthien says, “Ninety-nine percent of the people will be alive and probably not injured but living in a different world. Their concern should be how are they going to live after that.”

There’s no reason to sugar coat it. It won’t be pretty. Benthien laid out what might happen in the aftermath of a large quake on the San Andreas Fault:

  • There could be as many as sixteen hundred fires burning. Not enough firefighters to put them all out. Mutual assistance from surrounding areas might not happen because they’d be dealing with their own issues.
  • Water and sewer pipes will fracture. Repairs to the concrete pipes could take weeks or longer and replacing them? In a given year Benthien says, “There isn’t enough concrete made in the world to replace it.”
  • Interstates 5 and 10 and the rail line might be impassable making it difficult at best to get in relief supplies and help.
  • With the Interstates and rail line crippled, goods coming into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach might pile up on the docks. The entire nation would be affected.

So look, go to FLASH.org. Just take a few minutes of your time. You will find invaluable tips for keeping your family safe and your home earthquake ready. You can also go to Earthquakecountry.org and look for the seven steps to earthquake safety. What Mark Benthien said bears repeating, “Preparedness is about what you do ahead of time so you can survive and recover afterwards.”

QuakeSmart Now—Earthquake Safe Later: California Employers Lead the Way

By Terry Sheridan – FLASH Consumer Reporter

The magnitude 6.0 earthquake that struck picturesque Napa Valley on August 24 was Northern California’s strongest since Loma Prieta 25 years earlier. And if there is anything positive to come from it, it’s that it likely shook awareness into people about the need to prepare.

That’s where QuakeSmart™ comes in.

QuakeSmart is a mitigation program for businesses launched in 2008 by FEMA and the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program. The goal is to guide business owners in protecting their buildings, employees, and equipment with non-structural and structural reinforcements.

That’s how Becky Pereira and Tom Spada, both in San Jose, California, discovered what they’d need to do for their homes or office buildings. They learned that mitigation efforts can be as simple or complex as you want to make them — including projects like anchoring office and kitchen appliances and securing cabinet doors, desks, file cabinets, computers, TVs, and racks.

Becky’s in charge of health and safety coordination as a vendor for a Silicon Valley technology company in three high-rise office buildings totaling 54 floors. Each floor has a break room with a refrigerator, beverage cooler, and countertop appliances like microwaves and coffeemakers. Labs for software testing have numerous equipment racks, and their café has larger kitchen appliances and equipment.

Her experience in the Quake Cottage™ simulator of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake during a Building Owners and Managers Association presentation helped convince her that mitigation was needed. As a result, she made sure that anything that could move or fall was anchored by a contractor’s crew who spent several nights doing the work.

Even more, employees were receptive to retrofitting their own homes after a few seconds of simulated shaking in the Quake Cottage which the company brought to its offices for employees to experience.

Tom is the facilities maintenance administrator for the Santa Clara Valley Water District. He oversees maintenance of an administrative campus that includes six office buildings, a yard, two warehouses, four water treatment plants, three pump stations, and a water quality lab where one piece of equipment alone costs $500,000.

Bearing in mind that Santa Clara County sits atop three major fault lines, Tom brought in a contractor who provided anchoring kits and trained and certified Tom’s staff so that everyone knows how to use the tie-downs. So far, the project has cost about $7,300 for the lab.

Tom’s unsure how much the overall cost will be, but he is sure of an earthquake’s toll. A prior water treatment plant was destroyed in the 1989 magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake that decimated the San Francisco-Oakland area.   

Nothing is foolproof, of course. But, as Becky says, “It’s not if another quake will hit. It’s when.”

Find out more about QuakeSmart and what you can do at flash.org/quakesmart, and consider joining FLASH and QuakeSmart for a free Earthquake 2014 Summit on Sept. 18 in Riverside, California or Oct. 30 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit www.earthquake2014summit.com for more information.

Forty-two States At Risk for Earthquake: Residents Should Prepare Now

Early damage reports from today’s earthquake validate the case for simple preparations for families and small businesses to help prevent injury, property damage, and post-earthquake fires

(Tallahassee, FL) Citing today’s Magnitude 6.0 Northern California earthquake, the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) urges residents in 42 USGS-identified earthquake states to take immediate action to prevent injuries, property damage, and post-earthquake fires.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), “While all states have some potential for earthquakes, 42 of the 50 states have a reasonable chance of experiencing damaging ground shaking from an earthquake in 50 years (the typical lifetime of a building). Scientists also conclude that 16 states have a relatively high likelihood of experiencing damaging ground shaking. These states have historically experienced earthquakes with a magnitude 6.0 or greater. The hazard is especially high along the west coast, intermountain west, and in several active regions of the central and eastern U.S., such as near New Madrid, MO, and near Charleston, SC. The 16 states at highest risk are Alaska, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.”  USGS published new national seismic hazard maps last month.

“Buildings constructed with strong, modern seismic codes and standards will perform better in earthquakes, but it is up to the resident or building owner to take actions inside and around the structure to prevent injuries and interior damage from falling objects, broken glass, and gas leaks,” said FLASH President and CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson. “Most of these critical preparations require only household tools and basic home improvement skills, so acting now before the next earthquake can mean the difference between life and death.”

Chapman-Henderson provided prevention examples for homes and small businesses, including:

  • Support ceiling fans and light fixtures using bracing wire secured to a screw eye embedded at least an inch into the ceiling joist.
  • Anchor the tops of bookcases, file cabinets, and entertainment centers to one or more studs with flexible fasteners.
  • Secure loose shelving by fastening screws into the cabinet or with museum putty placed at each corner bracket.
  • Secure china, collectibles, trophies, and other shelf items with museum putty.
  • Install a lip or blocking device to prevent books or other articles from falling off shelves.
  • Secure televisions, computers, and stereos with buckles and safety straps that also allow easy removal and relocation.
  • Install latches on cabinet doors to prevent them from opening and spilling out contents.
  • Hang mirrors, pictures, and plants using closed hooks to prevent items from falling.
  • Cover windows with approved shatter-resistant safety film to protect against broken glass.
  • Ensure appliances have flexible gas or electrical connections.
  • Strap the top and bottom of a water heater using heavy-gauge metal strapping secured to wall studs.
  • Locate gas shutoff valve and know how to turn off the gas supply with the use of a specialty wrench. (video)
  • Relocate flammable liquids to a garage or outside storage location.

More free information and videos are available online at flash.org, www.youtube.com/stronghomes, and QuakeSmart.

Technical information is derived from FEMA document E-74 Reducing the Risks of Nonstructural Earthquake Damage. QuakeSmart is a FEMA National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP) initiative to help businesses in at-risk communities implement mitigation actions in addition to basic preparedness activities, such as creating and exercising disaster plans, preparing disaster supply kits, and knowing how to Drop, Cover, and Hold On (www.ShakeOut.org).