I was working at my home in Puebla, Mexico, making phone calls and writing emails. Suddenly, the table began to move. “Another earthquake,” I thought. I slowly stood up and headed towards the stairs — and heard the noise of things falling off shelves. I knew immediately that the quake was a big one.
Just twelve days before, another earthquake had shaken the south of Mexico, killing 98 people. The capital and the city of Puebla experienced only mild movement. I was already sleeping around midnight when I felt as if someone was rocking the bed. I had never experienced an earthquake before, so I didn’t really know how to react until the next day when my work colleagues told me how they had left their homes in pajamas and slippers.
When on September 19th the earth started to shake and it looked like the house was going to collapse, I ran out. There were already people in the middle of the street, waiting for the movement to end. Some of them were holding their heads in their hands in disbelief and fear, others were trying to joke and ease the tension. All the cars had stopped and everybody was turning their heads in all directions as they looked for buildings to crumble.
It got quiet again. The shaking had passed. I returned to my house. There was a message on my phone from my partner asking me whether I was all right and telling me that I should pick our daughter up from school immediately. I jumped in the car and took off. While on the road I started noticing the extent of the earthquake. The traffic lights were all off so the streets were chaotic. Later, I learned that the Internet connection was interrupted, as well as all telephone signals, so it was impossible to verify how much damage has been caused.
More than an hour had passed when messages from my friends started to flow in: “Is it true that a woman and her son have been killed in one of the center schools?”
“The mayor has confirmed three deaths.”
“I heard on the radio there are five casualties in the city of Puebla.”
By the end of the day, it was clear that many people had lost their lives, and that the death toll would rise as soon as collapsed buildings were searched. I spent the entire afternoon and night in front of the television, feeling sad and hopeless. I thought there was nothing I could do. I was wrong.
The next day, my editor sent me to photograph the devastation in the neighboring communities. My partner and his friends decided to buy food and water and take them to the communities near the epicenter of the earthquake. The reports had been showing enormous devastation. There were no casualties but a lot of residents had lost everything. In certain communities, 90% of the houses were affected; many of them were crushed to dust and almost all of them had become uninhabitable. People were sleeping in backyards; some were injured; all of them were hungry and depressed. They had lost everything — and the authorities were failing to provide provisions and shelters.
At the end of that day, my partner and I shared our experiences. What he told me gave me a little relief — he wasn’t the only one who decided to help those in need. The communities had become anthills of volunteers, distributing bottles of water, tuna and bean cans, sugar, bread, coffee and medicines. Men and women were using picks and shovels to remove the rubble. Others were listening to those affected, trying to calm them down and ignite hope.
Two days after the catastrophe, various initiatives were created to organize the help in a more efficient way. Though in some location, there were too many people trying to help — some volunteers reported miles-long lines of vehicles trying to enter the villages, many of them bringing food when the stocks had already been filled — when a resident of a community sent a message that help hadn’t arrived in a particular place, it circulated on Facebook within minutes and the problem was solved in a matter of hours. On every block there was a house, a restaurant, a bar, a local store, a hairdressing salon, etc. that had set up as a collection center for the victims of the earthquake. Huge amounts of food, diapers, and clothes were waiting to be delivered. At the end of the day, the stocks were still intact. The basic needs had been covered in every single place.
Two days after the earthquake, messages were flowing in a much more organized way: “Canvases, tents, mats are needed in Chiautla.”; “Medicines, especially painkillers and antibiotics; diapers; and baby food are needed in San Lucas Tulancingo”; “Picks, shovels, and people are needed in Chietla.” As soon as volunteers arrived in a community, they checked the needs of the day and sent messages to the coordinating organizations to make sure everyone received the help they desperately needed.
Architects and engineers have evaluated thousands of damaged houses for free, advising people whether it was necessary to demolish the structures, and what kind of repair was needed. Construction companies started to send cement, lime, and blocks to destroyed areas, while psychologists offered free therapy sessions to overcome the trauma. The first bamboo houses that will serve as temporary homes have already been built. And all of this was done by volunteer initiative.
The crisis will not be over for months and there’s still a lot of work to be done. But over the last two weeks, people have demonstrated an incredible will to offer their help. I trust that Mexico will come out this ordeal stronger and more united.