Mid September we had a family member visiting us for a couple of weeks. We had a blast touring the city and making a side trip to the coast of Oaxaca. It was an amazing time, but towards the end of the trip, it seemed the world started spinning in a different direction. It was while we were in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, that the devastating hurricane hit Texas and we learned our friend would be stuck with us 5 more days due to a canceled flight to Houston. We made the best of it and celebrated his eventual departure with mezcal at one of our favorite bars, La Clandestina. Not long after we arrived, on the evening of Wednesday September 6th, our server came tensely to our table speaking so quickly I couldn’t understand him. I soon realized by looking around that we were being asked to leave the building. What for? Just a couple of days before, we had seen numerous businesses closed down by authorities in surprise raids. Was something wrong here? Were we being raided? We got outside and were asked to move to the median in the street. Then, I realized the concern for an earthquake. We weren’t outside long before someone announced it was a false alarm. “Whew,” I thought and on we went with our celebrations.
We had been in the city for over 4 months and this was what I would call our first “close call.” Before we moved to CDMX, I had read about the devastating 1985 earthquake that killed thousands. I knew that our neighborhood, Roma-Condesa, in particular, was susceptible to damage with its location and old buildings. The residents of CDMX had gone through multiple earthquakes since then, but none with substantial damage. Plus, “strict” building codes had been implemented since 1985 making the city much more resilient to quakes. I had read about the air raid alarms that would sound giving us 30-90 seconds to make it to a safe place before the quake would hit the city, since most of the time quakes hit the coast and gave the city a short window of time to prepare. I had also downloaded an earthquake app, SkyAlert, for extra precaution. Now, the app wasn’t as accurate. We had in fact been alerted several times to sismos (earthquakes) happening allover the country, which were mild and not felt in the city. I had learned to double-check the alert, but usually it was nothing serious and I could drift back to sleep or return to my work.
A little over 24 hours later, at 11:48 pm on September 7th, an alert sounded from my app. I woke up as I usually do to check and all I saw was a mild quake in the south of Mexico. I had a few seconds to be puzzled as to why I was receiving an alert for this quake before hearing a long droning sound outside. Confused and starting to worry, I woke my husband and opened the terrace door, allowing me to clearly hear the city alarm and a muffled “Sismo,” “sismo” announcement happening. About that time, doors started to slam in the hallway as our neighbors fled and we knew this was for real. We grabbed our dog, passports, credit cards, emergency cash, phone, and computer (essential items for communication and getting the hell out) and headed to the streets in our pajamas.
As soon as we reached the hallway leading out to the street, the quake struck. The best description I have seen of the experience is that the ground felt like bubblegum. Maybe like a rough river flowing under the street covered with bubblegum? Light-poles swayed like pendulums and transformers blew. The sky lit up with light multiple times and the power was out. It would have been pitch black if it weren’t for the relentless lights at Bancomer Bank that seemed to run on a generator even in the worst of outages. Our neighbors stood by with their dogs, cats, and pet turtle. June seemed unfazed, but a dog nearby was retching in the street. My legs felt like jello, I trembled uncontrollably, and I could feel my gut in my chest. A couple of elders in our building were crying in fear. No doubt, they had been there long enough to remember 1985. I checked my phone and miraculously was able to send a text out to my mom to alert her to the quake and let her know I was okay…in case another one hit and I wouldn’t be okay.
Eventually, a couple of cars drove up, blasting the news and opening their doors for everyone to hear. We soon learned this was an 8.2 (or possibly 8.4 as reported by Mexico’s seismology team) that hit in the Chiapas region of southern Mexico. In terms of strength, many people considered it the strongest quake in over a century. Our location away from the epicenter as well as horizontal movement and depth of the quake meant the city experienced much less damage. Other areas in Chiapas and Oaxaca were badly affected. Our power returned within a couple of hours.
The next week was a blur as we tried to regroup. We received notifications about several aftershocks and I must have checked the other Earthquake app I downloaded (for extra-extra precaution after this one) dozens of times each day assessing the severity of each aftershock. I kept up to date with the news coming from the other regions, baffled that they were receiving tsunami warnings on the coast where I had just vacationed the week before. At the same time, I was trying to move forward in connecting with the city and focusing on personal goals I had set for myself the week before. I had a couple of coffee dates with new friends and by the weekend, I felt ready to enjoy the celebrations for Mexico’s Independence Day.
Oddly enough, sometime during the course of the weekend, my husband and I had received several sismo alerts on our phones within the course of a minute. I panicked slightly seeing the severity of the quakes being reported in different parts of the country. Minutes later, we received another alert apologizing for the alerts, which were supposed to be sent out on September 19th as part of the national earthquake drill. This drill is done each year, the anniversary of the 1985 earthquake.
The following Monday, I spent most of the day prepping materials to be focused and productive on Tuesday with various writing contracts I had acquired. Tuesday morning I woke up early to teach English. Afterwards, I tucked myself back into bed, eager to get another couple of hours in. Suddenly, my husband woke me saying “Tiff, is that the earthquake alarm?” I woke and indeed heard that long droning sound, opened the terrace door and realized it was true. Again, we grabbed essentials and ran down the stairs, into the very calm street where we saw people casually eating their breakfasts and coming out of Woolworths with smiles on their faces. Very confusing, until my husband asked “Is today September 19th?” I had lost touch with time, because I replied “No,” thinking maybe it was two days before. Once I looked at my watch and we realized it was the 19th, we were relieved and a bit embarrassed that it was only a drill. I stood outside, smiling at the scene of me in the middle of the day with my earthquake pack, hair disheveled, no bra, and dark raccoon eyes from where my makeup had rubbed around while sleeping after my classes.
Since I was nice and alert after the drill, I decided to make some breakfast and start working. I sat down to write an article and was gathering photographs to include. About an hour into writing, at around 1:13 pm, I started to feel the building sway. At first, I recalled how our old apartment would sway when a big truck would drive by. Then I realized this building had never swayed like that before and that this was…an earthquake. I yelled to my husband ‘We’re having an earthquake!” Since this was our first earthquake with no warning–nothing from SkyAlert or the city, we made moves fast.
Fortunately, I had my earthquake bag already packed and accessible from the drill earlier in the day. My husband grabbed the computer and as I was grabbing my dog and bag, I yelled “Go, go, go.” About that time, the city alarm sounded. I was right behind him, but we felt so separated. The quake gained strength so quickly that by the time I made it to the doorway, I asked myself if I should try to make it down three flights of stairs or stay in the doorway. Since my husband was already headed down, I couldn’t imagine being stuck in the building alone and opted for the stairs. I didn’t have the apartment keys and so left the apartment wide open. I grabbed June, but my neighbor ran right behind me and started yelling for me to go fast down the stairs. Knowing June was right behind me, I let go and ran as fast as I could down the stairs and through the hallway to the street. The whole time, I was waiting for the stairs to crumble and ceilings to fall on me. I truly didn’t know if I would make it out.
Once out to the street, I turned around to grab June, but she wasn’t there. My neighbor ran out behind and suddenly the door to the building shut. With no sign of June, no keys to enter the building, and the quake still happening, we were terrified. We asked many people on the street if they had keys to the building and nobody seemed to have them. Eventually, a man who my husband had already asked said he did actually have keys and let us borrow them. Against recommendations for safety to stay out of the building until it was checked, my husband opened the door, ran down the hallway, and found that June had run back up to the apartment. She came to him, but was trembling terribly in fear. I was heart-broken, shocked, and in retrospect, definitely traumatized. I think she was too.
This earthquake was different from the one on the 7th. The movement happened vertically, and though it was “weaker” at a 7.1, it landed much closer to the city in the state of Puebla. Due to proximity, there wasn’t time for the city to send an alert that would allow people to evacuate before it hit. The movement was fierce and we could see large clouds of dust a couple of blocks away near the park where we always walked June in the afternoons. The streets were packed and it was evident that nobody had intentions of returning inside anytime soon. We walked up to the corner of Woolworths across from the apartment to see what was happening on Insurgentes, a major street.
As I stood on the corner, I received upwards of 40 alerts from SkyAlert, but without reliable connection, it was difficult to decipher what was happening. I was terrified that more quakes were on the way, but eventually realized the app was just now alerting me to the drills from earlier and quake that had just happened. After texting my mom, I turned my phone off knowing we would need to conserve battery. Power was out and a man with two people helping walked by with blood on his sleeves. It was clear this earthquake was going to be more devastating to the city than the last. We didn’t know what to do, except to look around for people needing help.