By Carole Reedy
At noon on a beautiful, sun-drenched day walking down Reforma Avenue in the capital city, I observed lines of employees obediently returning to their high-rise offices after the simulacro (practice evacuation for an earthquake), reminding me of our 1950s grammar school air-raid drills in preparation for any future bombs coming from Russia. I thought to myself how stupid it was, disrupting everything to practice leaving a building. But after all, this was the 32nd anniversary of the big earthquake in 1985 in which more than 10,000 chilangos lost their lives. Understandable, then, I decided.
My destination was the Cinepolis Diana, where I planned to further my goal of seeing all seven French movies being presented this month as part of the French Film Festival. Today’s film starred the lustrous Catherine Deneuve. After many previews and loud, aggravating advertisements for Coke and Pepsi, the movie finally began. A few minutes later my seat shook a bit. I was startled but ignored it.
Then it happened again and the walls started moving and creaking, as if they were about to fall in.
My 15 fellow moviegoers and I ran for the exit of the sala toward the main part of the theater, where there are quite a few steps to maneuver before exiting the building. A theater employee kindly took my arm and led me down the steps (the advantage of being 70 with white hair!), all while the ground was shaking under our feet.
Finally, we exited to the blazing white light of the sun and the emerald tint of trees and flora. A mix of emotions: some people crying, others talking, but everyone trying to call or text loved ones, albeit unsuccessfully (though my WhatsApp did work).
Suddenly a wall of people started running and screaming. It took me a few minutes to grasp the reason. It was then I smelled the gas: a fuga de gas (gas leak). I stayed fairly calm while trying to figure out what to do. I What’s-Apped my landlord, who said everything was fine in our building. Whew! Decision made, I headed for home on foot, since it was obvious no traffic was moving (the cars on Reforma had their engines turned off by order of the police due to the danger of the gas leaks).
Along my route police prevented me from entering some streets because of the threat of more gas leaks. But I managed to make my way down Puebla Street, where I observed many windows blown out and piles of rubble that had fallen from the building facades.
When I finally reached my apartment building in Roma Sur, there was no electricity. One neighbor hadn’t heard from his wife and another was awaiting word from his son, both of whom showed up hours later. We had no idea how the city was affected, but in the days to come the thorough, 24-hour news coverage told the unfolding story of the 7.1 trembler. Our electricity was back by midnight and friends who live in various neighborhoods near and far called to say their lights were on too. By the next day, 90 percent of the city’s electricity had been restored (most of the city had been affected).
The following day I decided to venture out to observe any damage to my colonia and the adjoining trendy Condesa, both areas among the most susceptible to damage due to quakes. This area is built on an old Aztec canal and also is on the trajectory of a fault line. It was obvious the city hadn’t slept since the quake. Streets containing collapsed or compromised buildings were already closed off. By far the most impressive rescue effort was undertaken by the dozens upon dozens of young adults, obviously very organized thanks to their cell phones, gathering food, water, medicine, blankets, diapers, and the like for the damnificados. It was a beautiful organized chaos.
For once in my life, I had admiration for the motorcyclists, key to the distribution of goods, messages, and transportation, because they could enter areas that cars could not. Within hours, throughout the city, Centros de Acopios were set up to collect donations. In the days to come, the items were also distributed to people in Jojutla in Morelos and Puebla, states equally affected by the quake. Over the next few days the sounds of police, ambulance, and fire sirens permeated the city, each time causing my heart to skip a beat and my eyes to well up with tears. Each new day brought news of more deaths and, for me, a slight hesitancy before entering buildings.
Insecurity fosters a protective instinct, and the people of this city took care of one another. The government provided free public transportation for more than a week, and many events were canceled as a precaution as well as out of respect for the dead and suffering. Mexico City lies on the soft ground of a residual lake bed, which is one reason for the frequent quakes. Remember, the Aztecs traveled by canal, not street. Does it make you think twice about living here? Of course, but there are no guarantees anywhere. You weigh the risk and keep your fingers crossed.
As of this writing, the usual flurry of fall activities is back in swing: dance, opera, music, theater, museums. Some schools are still closed, buildings under repair, streets still blocked, and the transportation is the usual desmadre. Así es la vida.
September 17, 2017