35 Years Since Mexico City – What’s Changed?

By Kathy Gannon Rainey|2020-09-17T14:51:47+00:00September 16th, 2020|0 Comments

So much has changed since September 19, 1985. Three life-changing improvements stand out immediately — but there are many more. 

The devastating Mexico City earthquake was the catalyst for my 35-year career in what has become an industry — one that in 2020 integrates the disciplines of emergency management, business continuity, crisis/risk management and governance to build resilience for public and private sectors globally.

I vividly remember the 8.0 magnitude, early morning earthquake that hit Mexico City.  It was September 19, 1985 at 7:18 am.  Quickly it was obvious that the death, injuries and damage would be catastrophic.  10,000+ dead, 100,000 homes destroyed, 400 major buildings collapsed.

Like many, I was transfixed during the multi-day miraculous rescues of more than 39 newborns and infants from the collapsed General and Juarez Hospitals, two maternity centers that serviced Mexico City’s poor and working-class residents.   The hospitals, like 100’s of other buildings throughout the city, simply collapsed.  The rescue of these newborns gave hope and focus to a mourning nation.

At the time I was living in Orange County, California, having moved there to start a business.  The news from Mexico City was so compelling, I pursued options to help in a future event, as earthquakes were, and still are, a constant threat on the west coast.

In the days and weeks following, the recurring media message in Mexico and in Southern California became, “Human suffering could have been enormously reduced if 72-hour preparedness had been a pre-earthquake priority.” I began to research products and services for preparedness. In the two months following the earthquake, a vision emerged.  In November, 1985, I founded Emergency Lifeline Corporation –headquartered in the bedroom of my tiny apartment. The initial focus was preparedness products for homes, schools, and the workplace. The business grew, and our products were distributed through mail-order and big box retailers throughout the west coast and Japan. But with the products, customers were also asking for expertise, for custom solutions, for recovery plans…something new at the time. So the  Emergency Lifeline expanded to provide these resources through publications (the Disaster Resource GUIDE and the Continuity eGuide) and now the collaborative website and platform, Risk and Resilience HUB.

What Has Changed Since September 19, 1985? 

Since September 19, we have experienced a stream of disasters, countless lessons learned, an evolution of emergency management that recognizes the need for public and private partnerships and eventual collaboration with business continuity, risk management and governance.  Here are three significant changes and resources for further research. There are many more!

1. Early Warning Systems Save Lives

From Prevention Web

“Five years after the devastating 1985 quake, Mexico equipped itself with one of the world’s most effective early warning systems for earthquakes.   SASMEX: the Seismic Alert System of Mexico comprises more than 8200 seismic sensors located in the most active earthquake zone that runs between Jalisco, Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Mexico City.

An essential part of the system, the sensors detect the first earth tremors and SASMEX calculates the intensity of the earthquake. If the estimated magnitude of the tremor is greater than 5.5 on the Richter scale, warning notifications are immediately sent out to state and local officials and emergency focal points in all areas at risk. Mass warnings are then issued through sirens, AM and FM radios, and television broadcasts, so populations and communities at risk have time to prepare and save their lives.  The system is very efficient and has already contributed to saving many lives. In April 2014, an earthquake of magnitude 7.2 hit the west coast of Mexico close to Acapulco. ‘A warning was issued in less than 10 seconds to seven main Mexican cities at risk and no death was reported,’ said Mr. Luis Felipe Puente, Head of Mexico’s Civil Protection.”  https://www.preventionweb.net/news/view/52762

From ShakeAlert®  An Earthquake Early Warning System for the West Coast of the United States

“This earthquake early warning (EEW) system detects significant earthquakes so quickly that alerts can reach many people before shaking arrives. ShakeAlert is not earthquake prediction, rather a ShakeAlert message indicates that an earthquake has begun and shaking is imminent.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) along with a coalition of State and university partners are now implementing Phase 3 of operations of the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System for the West Coast of the United States. Many partnerships to utilize ShakeAlert in authentic environments such as utilities, hospitals, transportation systems, and educational environments are active today and more are being developed. In 2020, the USGS and its partners will continue to expand these applications in coordination with state agencies in Washington, Oregon and California.”    https://www.shakealert.org/

2. Mitigation & Risk Reduction Save Lives

From the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

A Lesson in Risk Mitigation from Mexico’s 1985 and 2012 Earthquakes

“Before 1957, Mexico City did not have building codes for earthquake resistance. Some regulations were passed in 1957 after an earthquake in the city, but more stringent codes were enacted in in 1976 after another, stronger earthquake shook the city. Most of the seriously damaged buildings in the 1985 earthquake were built between 1957 and 1976, when the city was starting to build upwards, in the six-to-15 floor range, but without stringent building codes. Next came the buildings that were built before 1957 (which were typically smaller than six stories). Buildings from 1976 to 1985 suffered the least damage.

It seems that the reason Mexico City didn’t experience more damage in the 2012 earthquake was (at least in part) because of stronger, more reliable buildings. The buildings that collapsed in the 1985 earthquake were replaced with structures with better technology, and better able to withstand earthquakes.”


The Sendai Framework

The Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, held in Cancun, Mexico, May 2017, addressed the need to build resilient infrastructures worldwide as a follow up to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, adopted in Japan in 2015. The Sendai Framework has set 2030 as the main deadline to make cities and countries more resilient to disasters.    https://www.undrr.org/implementing-sendai-framework/what-sendai-framework

3. Emergency Management Evolved Rapidly after the 1990s

 From “A Safer Future: Reducing the Impacts of Natural Disasters”

In 1991, “Emergency response is rapidly evolving. Prior to the 1985 Mexico earthquake, for example, search and rescue was seldom a part of community response plans; it is a major intergovernmental initiative today. Advances in warning and communications technology in the United States provide new opportunities for emergency responders. Mobile and cellular telephones, donated by industry, were instrumental in coordinating the Loma Prieta earthquake response. Perhaps the greatest change in response planning and practice in the past decade, though, has been the integration of new groups and disciplines. In addition, the federal government has become more active in response planning, and business and industry are taking more responsibility for augmenting community emergency response capabilities.”  https://www.nap.edu/read/1840/chapter/7#30

From Introduction to Emergency Management, 7th Edition by Jane Bullock, George Haddow, Damon Coppola

Historical Context and Evolution of Emergency Management – “A series of large scale disasters in the 1960s and 1970s focused the nation’s Governors to prompt the Federal government to consolidate its emergency management functions into one agency, so FEMA was formed in 1979 with the mission of providing a single Federal entity to work with State and local governments.

When President Clinton nominated James Lee Witt as the Director of FEMA, he brought a much-needed leadership style to FEMA.  Witt was the first Director of FEMA with actual emergency management experience.  He had come from the constituency who had played a major role in creating FEMA but had been forgotten: the State Directors.”


What’s Ahead?

An entire book could be written on the changes since 1985. Today we see threats far different from the ones we battled in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s.  Our means of communication have changed — social media is on center stage.  The new platform Risk and Resilience HUB has been created for such a time as this — to facilitate virtual connection and collaboration for global professionals.

Let’s get the conversation going.  With your help, the best is yet to come. 

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About the Author: Kathy Gannon Rainey

Kathy Rainey founded the Emergency Lifeline Corporation in 1985 to address the earthquake preparedness needs of businesses and communities. She is the publisher of the Disaster Resource Guide, Continuity eGUIDE and the Risk and Resilience Hub. Connect with Kathy via email at [email protected]

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