So, in my short time in Mexico I have managed to survive not one, but two major earthquakes in Mexico City. Of course, there have always been earthquakes in Mexico City and in Mexico in general, but these were some of the biggest that the country has seen. This is the story about what happened to me during and after both of these huge earthquakes in Mexico City.
Before I start, if you are looking for practical advice about what to do during earthquakes in Mexico City, then please read Northern Lauren’s The Anxious Girl’s Guide to Earthquake Etiquette. The first part is tongue-in-cheek (and a hilarious read), but there’s also some important and practical information about what to do during earthquakes at the end.
Oh Mom, Stop Your Worrying About Earthquakes
I’d been in Mexico City just five days, working from my laptop and doing a bit of sightseeing. It had rained for nearly the entirety of those five days and I had been joking with my fellow travel buddy, Karina, that she was bringing us bad luck with the weather. In search of warmer climes, she journeyed south to Oaxaca and I caught up with my mom on Skype.
“There’s been a documentary on the BBC about Mexico,“ my mom told me. “It said there are lots of earthquakes in Mexico City. You will be safe, won’t you?”
Oh, Mom! I scoffed. Quit your worrying! I’m sure it’s fine. I travelled earthquake-prone Indonesia without feeling a tremor, Southeast Asia without a serious typhoon and I lived at the bottom of the most active volcano in Europe in Catania, Sicily. What were the chances, really?
Turns out, pretty high.
The First Earthquake Hits off the Coast of Oaxaca
That night, I was reading in the third-floor room of my hostel when I started to get annoyed. It was just past midnight. The woman in the bunk above mine was fidgeting like crazy, and it was rocking the bed and driving me mad.
To top it off, someone’s key was jammed in the dorm room door and they were rattling the handle back and forth, trying to get in.
It wasn’t until I saw the locker door next to my bed was swinging of its own volition that I realised something was wrong. I stood up and felt the whole building moving.
My dorm mates started to wake up. I went to the door and opened it – isn’t there some thing about how you should always stand in a doorway during an earthquake? (alternative fact checker: this is actually not a good idea).
I saw that people were evacuating the building, so I grabbed my phone and some flip-flops and followed suit. I wasn’t sure if the ground was still shaking, or if I was.
Out in the street, I sat down on a kerb and tried to calm my nerves. My phone died. Alarms were going off everywhere. I later learned that there is a siren that gives a one-minute warning for earthquakes in Mexico City because the epicentre is usually off the coast, so there is time for warning before it makes its way to the capital.
However, in the third-floor room of my hostel, which had no exterior windows, I didn’t hear anything.
My Spanish is currently limited to si, no, gracias, paraguas, un capuchino con leche light por favor and DES-PAS-CITO! Quiero respirar tu cuello despacito! Therefore, I had no idea what was going on.
After an hour and a half of shivering in my pyjamas, I decided that aftershocks were unlikely and went back up to the room. Checking BBC News, I saw that the earthquake had been 8.2 on the Richter scale and had hit off the coast of Oaxaca (told you Karina was unlucky – Sorry, Karina!).
After making sure that Karina was fine and messaging my mom and boyfriend with: “There´s been an earthquake. I think it’s kinda a big deal, but I’m fine.” Only the next day did I realise just how big it was in terms of impact and in global news.
I tried to get some sleep, but, needless to say, every time someone opened the door or moved in a bed, I immediately snapped back awake.
Aftermath of Earthquake Number 1
Reaching 8.2 on the Richter scale, this was the strongest earthquake in Mexico in a hundred years. Many places around Oaxaca were devastated, many people displaced and at least 90 people were killed.
In Mexico City, the next day carried on as normal and people started collecting aid for those affected in the south. People praised the way the city had been rebuilt after the 1985 earthquake, which had killed tens of thousands, and this seemed to have prevented any damage this time around.
I messaged concerned friends and family. Yes, I was OK. And I was safe. Yes, I was doing everything I could to stay safe. No, I didn’t need anything. Yes, I was fine.
A week or so passed. After the initial shock of being in one of the stongest ever earthquakes in Mexico City, I was adjusting to life in the capital and settling into Mexico. I moved out of my hostel in the Centro Historico and into a hostel in Condesa – a nice area with lots of cafes.
I met up with Mariana, a lovely girl from Mexico whom I had met in San Francisco. She even invited me to stay with her, as she lived in the Condesa area anyway and had a cat (this sealed the deal). We arranged that I would stay from the following Tuesday to Sunday.
On Friday 15th and Saturday 16th, I celebrated Mexican Independence.
The only mishap was a little coffee incident with my laptop, which meant the keyboard part had to go to a repair shop for cleaning. But, I was hopeful it was nothing to worry about. I’d get it back within two days.
I Skyped my mom again and we laughed about the earthquake and the irony that it happened the exact same day that she had warned me about earthquakes in Mexico City. But, that was my bad luck out the way now, right?
What are the chances of two big earthquakes in Mexico City happening so close together?
Turns out, pretty high.
Earthquake 2, The Bigg’Un
Tuesday 18th September was also the anniversary of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. Mariana messaged me to warn me that the siren usually goes off on this day, so I shouldn’t be alarmed. Also, many places do their earthquake drills as well, but don’t worry.
I checked out of my Condesa hostel in the morning, ready to move in with Mariana in the evening. Without a functioning laptop to work from, I decided to head back into the Centro Historico and visit the Palacio Nacional and Palacio de Bellas-Artes, first stopping for brunch in the El Cardenal cafe.
I was just sipping the last drops of my coffee and placing my money down on the table for the bill, when I felt the the earth begin to move again.
This time, I recognised what was happening straight away and this time, I knew the quake was much bigger. There was no warning, no siren, no time to feel it grow. It started with an almighty shudder. I learnt later that the epicentre was close by, in Puebla, so there was no time for warnings.
The host at the cafe blew a whistle and everyone ran out of the cafe and into the square outside. As I ran out, I saw huge chunks of stone from the roof of a nearby building fly off into the air and crash down onto the square.
I’m not embarrassed to say I completely panicked. The crowds of people gathering in the square quickly stood in lines to be counted, calmly calling loved ones even before the shaking had stopped. Meanwhile, I was having a little cry into my t-shirt.
After the shaking passed, we stayed on the square for maybe an hour or so before people started moving again. We went back inside the cafe, I paid the bill and tried, mostly successfully, to calm myself down. I messaged my mom and Rob informing them of the earthquake and telling them that I was safe.
Aftermath of Earthquake Number 2
This was when a man in a high-vis vest came inside the cafe and in a very panicked tone said something in Spanish along the lines of: “What the hell are you all doing still inside here?! This building isn’t safe! You need to leave right now!”
In my limited experience with earthquakes in Mexico City, I could tell this was vastly different to the earthquake I had experienced a week or so before. As I walked aimlessly around the Centro Historico, yellow tape was being wrapped around the majority of buildings.
Hundreds of people were outside, many in the park next to the Bellas-Artes, unable to go back into their buildings, but unsure where they should be going instead. I saw debris on the floor, cracks in the sides of buildings and heard broken glass crunch under my feet.
I walked down one of the main shopping streets, back towards the Zocalo square, where shopkeepers and restaurant owners were pulling down their shutters. The city was closing down.
Once I got to the Zocalo, I saw that pieces of the beautiful cathedral’s exterior had broken off and had smashed onto the floor below. Ominously, the Mexican flag was flying at half-maste. The atmosphere was tense. Everyone looked lost.
Was it only a few days ago that half a million people had crowded into this square for Independence Day celebrations? The red, green and white decorations were still up on the surrounding buildings.
Stuck in the Centro Historico
Unable to find anywhere to charge my dying phone, I decided to try and head back to Condesa, not realising that this was the worst hit area in the city. The metro barriers were up, as public transport had been made free, but I spent an hour on the platform without managing to get on a train.
Five trains came and went, but they were packed full.
Defeated, I decided I would ask at my previous Centro Historico hostel, which was nearby, if I could charge my phone there. They were very obliging.
Then, I received messages from Mariana saying that she had been told to evacuate her building. Then, I received messages from my Condesa hostel roomies, Apidz, saying that there was no electricity in the whole of Condesa. And then, I overheard people saying that the metro had now been closed and the crazy traffic meant there was no way they could get back to Condesa either.
I was stuck.
Luckily, the hostel had beds. So, even though I had nothing with me but the clothes I had on, my phone, some money and a guide book, I decided it was best if I stay in the Centro Historico for a night and try to get back to Condesa and my luggage in the morning.
I combed the streets, finally finding somewhere open that was selling food. Back at the hostel, I drank all the beers with other ‘survivors’ who weren’t sure what to do with themselves either. We drank, exchanged travel stories and laughed.
It was nice to talk about something other than earthquakes.
The Day After
This morning (Wednesday), I was told repeatedly by several local people that the best thing I could do is leave the city. And I would gladly make my way to Guadalajara that little bit earlier, if it wasn’t for the fact I would be leaving half of my laptop behind.
Obviously, the repair shop isn’t open. Very few stores, restaurants or cafes have been open today. I made the decision to come back to Condesa and get my bag and decide from there.
Condesa has it’s electricity back, but the area is still suffering from the damage. The owner of the Condesa hostel I’m staying at estimates over 20 buildings have fallen and there are still a couple of big ones that are due to fall at any moment. She descibed a feeling of “hurt” that is being felt by the people in this area.
Walking around Condesa today, I’ve been amazed by just how many volunteers there are on the streets. Everyone is wearing high-vis vests, gloves and face masks – indications that they have been helping to clear away rubble. There are lines of hundreds of people passing resources to be sorted, packaged and delivered to those in need.
People on bicycles and scooters, weaving in and out of unmoving traffic and transporting resources in their backpacks. Collection points and first-aid stops on every corner. Military and military police everywhere. Even people making sandwiches for those working hard to repair the city.
It’s incredibly inspiring.
At the time of writing, the BBC estimate the death toll to be 230, but I expect that number will rise much higher in the coming days. Many people are still missing and many of the city’s buildings are still in a dangerous state. There are still children trapped under rubble.
But, if there´s one thing I´ve learnt about earthquakes in Mexico City, it´s that Mexican people are strong, resilient and selfless. Internet providers have released access codes to make all of their networks free to use. Thousands of people are volunteering to clear rubble and rescue survivors.
Nearby my hostel, there´s a doctor who is taking in pets from people who can’t go back into their homes.
Literally, everyone is doing whatever they can to help.
I have never seen a group of people pull together in this distinct way before.
Hopefully, the city can repair itself and get back to normal soon, but if you would like any advice about earthquakes in Mexico City or would like to find a way to help, please read the info below.
What to do during earthquakes in Mexico City
- Ahead of time, make sure you understand the evacuation procedure and/or meeting point for the building you are staying in. If concerned, request a room on a lower floor.
- Keep a pair of slip-on shoes and a jacket next to your bed. If your phone is prone to losing battery life quickly, make sure you have a power pack or something on standby.
- Read Northern Lauren’s The Anxious Girl’s Guide to Earthquake Etiquette (practical advice at the bottom).
- Check in with the BBC for news and Twitter for instant updates.
- Note that the emergency number in Mexico is 911.
- Ready.gov has some useful advice on earthquakes as well as tsunamis.
- I know it’s hard and I’m a bad example, but remain calm. Trust your instinct. Listen to others, especially local people who have experienced many earthquakes before.
- Message your mom to let her know you’re safe!
How to help those affected by the earthquakes in Mexico City and beyond
This is not my image, but I saw this circulating on Twitter and it has everything you need to know.
A Tale of Two Earthquakes in Mexico City
Phew. So, that’s my personal story of surviving two major earthquakes in Mexico City in my first few weeks in this country. My thoughts are with everyone affected, many far worse off than I am, and the amazing people who are donating their time and money to help.