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The Mexican government learned some lessons after the devastating earthquake of 1985, but there hasn’t been an end to corruption, says Laura Carlsen of the Center for International Policy

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. As everyone knows by now, Central Mexico was hit with a 7.1 magnitude earthquake on Tuesday afternoon. So far the earthquake has said to have caused at least 225 deaths, but the number is expected to climb higher as people engage in rescue operations and find more bodies buried in the rubble. Coincidentally, this earthquake happened on the day of the 32nd anniversary of its deadly 1985 earthquake, which killed as many as 10,000 people. Also, it happened on the heel of another deadly magnitude of 8.1 quake that struck only two weeks ago near Mexico’s coast, which killed at least 90 people. Joining us now to take a closer look at the wider context of the earthquake is Laura Carlsen. Laura is the director of the America’s program of the Center for International Policy in Mexico City. I thank you so much for joining us. LAURA CARLSEN: Thank you. SHARMINI PERIES: So, Laura, let’s start off with what exactly happened. This was unexpected. There was no warnings. Only just a few minutes before there was an alarm. Tell us exactly what happened and what you experienced. LAURA CARLSEN: Yeah. At 1:14 yesterday afternoon, I was upstairs on the roof actually of an old building in the downtown area of Mexico City. Now this is a part of Mexico City that’s built on the lake bed, so it moves a lot. We didn’t hear a seismic alarm. In fact, the seismic alarm actually went off almost simultaneously when the earthquake started, and that’s because this time the epicenter was so close to Mexico City that there was really very little warning, and it’s also a different kind of a plate movement that caused the earthquake, so there was no motion sensor. So we began to feel a shaking. At first, we weren’t entirely sure what it was, and then it was significant swaying back and forth. We began to go downstairs. It was a fire escape type ladder, and it was very difficult to go downstairs to hold on. Then when we finally got out of this old building, the streets were filled with people who had evacuated buildings all over this part of the city, which is major, high density part of the city on Avenida Reforma. People were crying. They were hugging each other. They were very shaken up. There was some who remembered and still had … They still had memories of the disaster of the earthquake in 1985, so it’s a trauma that reopens every time this happens. There was dust and the smell of gas in the air, people saying, “Don’t light cigarettes.” We saw the ambulances come for someone just up the block. It wasn’t clear what had happened to them, but there were many, many injuries, and then eventually I left there and began to walk through the city and streets were filled with people. They were asking people not to take their cars out so that the emergency vehicles could circulate, and people didn’t really know what to do. Many of them could not go back into their buildings because they had to inspect them to see what shape they were in, even the ones that didn’t collapse completely, and then in many neighborhoods there were buildings that completely collapsed. Just five blocks from my house here there was a building that’s entirely rubble right now. SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, Laura, you mentioned having arrived there after the 1986 quake, which I understand was much stronger and hit Mexico more directly, and it’s a city of about 20 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area. How did the ’85 earthquake survive it and also what can we expect from your experience back then in terms of how people are going to deal with it now? LAURA CARLSEN: Well first, in terms of the earthquake, it was obviously much stronger. There was much more damage within the city. Here we have collapsed buildings and we have walls and windows that have broken out in certain areas, but back then, you could have entire blocks that were pretty much leveled, and when I got here in 1986 it was still that way. It took a very long time to rebuild, and much of that had to do with government negligence and corruption. In fact, much of the destruction had to do with government negligence and corruption because buildings, in order to pocket the difference, had been built substandard, and they called for, say, metal structures of a certain size and they put in metal structures that were much smaller and pocketed the difference. They learned from this lesson, although certainly there hasn’t been an end to corruption. Many buildings are stronger, but we still have many of the old buildings as well that now this was kind of the last straw for a lot of them and that’s why they fell. What we’re seeing in terms of the people’s response is very similar to 1985, and it was a huge lesson for Mexican civil society because in a context where the government was not stepping in to play its role of obviously providing the services, searching for the people who were trapped in the rubble, getting the bodies out so families could have some relief, cleaning the city up, and rebuilding, it was the people who immediately stepped up at great risk to themselves, looking through the rubble to try to save survivors that were trapped there, and that’s what’s happening this time too. The government’s trying to make up for the mistakes of 1985, and there have been a number of declarations and the armed forces are out helping with these efforts although there’s some reports that the army is not working very well with the civil society search groups. I’ve seen that they are bringing in heavy equipment to some sites. What that means is you’re essentially giving up on survivors because once you bring heavy equipment in to remove rubble, you’re going to have things caving in below. So there have been some criticisms of that, but what the people are doing is really amazing. There’s a lot of solidarity in the city in all parts. SHARMINI PERIES: Laura, you were referring earlier to the fact that there are codes in place, and in fact there are examples throughout the world where building codes are put in place for structures to avoid collapsing like it did in Mexico City. You were saying these regulations aren’t adhered to. People sort of bend the rules to pocket money. Is there anything that the Mexico government could have done in order to avoid buildings collapsing the way they did in this particular earthquake? LAURA CARLSEN: Yes. I mean the focus right now is trying to find survivors and getting them out, but it’s always the case that in a natural disaster, there’s a significant component of a manmade disaster. In fact, flood may be normal, accepting how it touches on where humans are settling and how they’re doing it. In this case, it will be a big task for the government to inspect these buildings and find out if some of the ones that fell down were below code or had already been structurally damaged and should have been attended to a long time ago as well as doing a thorough inspection of the buildings that are still standing to see what shape they’re in and if they need to have repairs or need to be condemned. We don’t know yet, but there’s a suspicion, for example, because some buildings fall and others don’t right next door to each other that the architecture is a big part of it. One of the biggest cases that will have to be investigated, the most tragic, is a school in Coapa that completely collapsed, one half of it, and that’s where we have the highest number of deaths and most of them were children. Over 20 children were killed in that one school, so there may be a story behind that in the sense that it could have been avoided, and if that’s the case, there should be criminal liability and there has to be a major effort to check all of our schools and make sure our children are safe because they’re saying that this is not going to be the last one. SHARMINI PERIES: Right, and yet this particular earthquake came quite suddenly and people weren’t expecting it. There was no warnings. How could there be not warnings. I mean aren’t these type of earthquakes these days monitored and some predictability could be projected? LAURA CARLSEN: Well, yeah, they sometimes can and they sometimes can’t. It’s not an absolute science in that sense, and some methods have had greater success than others, and as I was mentioning before there was a warning system of about … We had about a minute, 40 seconds to a minute. With the past earthquake, because its epicenter was way out in the Pacific Ocean, it took a while for that movement to reach Mexico City, and this one, there’s no sensor system on this particular … I think it’s a fault line, and it’s way too close to have that lead time. So I don’t know if there could be a better scientific system to be able to warn us, but in general, we have to do a better job also of making sure that everybody knows the protocols, which may differ from one building or one area to another. Do you stay inside in a door frame or should you go outside? A lot of the population, even though we are in an earthquake-prone city, doesn’t really know all that. So these are things that we’re going to have to look hard and fast at to be able to prevent human tragedies when the next earthquake comes because it’s practically inevitable. SHARMINI PERIES: Right, and Laura, finally, what do you think the political consequences of this quake will be? LAURA CARLSEN: Right now all eyes are going to be on what happens with the disaster funding. There’s been a declaration by the president that there’s an all-out alert in this case, and the full funding for natural disasters fund will be applied to not just this earthquake but the past one as well, but what has often happened, in fact you could say it always happened in the history here of Mexico, the contemporary history, is that the funds that come in, including both the national and the international, don’t arrive necessarily where they need to go, which is to attend to the victims and to the reconstruction. There’s a lot of housing costs to rebuild. There’s infrastructure that’s been damaged. It will be very expensive to attend to both these earthquakes throughout Mexico, and yet the corruption means that much of that has gone into the pockets of politicians who make fancy statements and then end up taking the money. This is especially important right now because we’re coming up on presidential elections, and presidential elections in the past have been funded through these turns … These disaster funds can turn into kind of a giant political slush fund if there isn’t a lot of vigilance about where the money goes. So we’re going to have to be seeing how we can prevent that from taking place in this case because there’s so much need out there now. SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Laura. Thank you so much, and all the best in recovery and we hope to have you back very soon to give us an update on the recovery work that is being done. Thank you so much. LAURA CARLSEN: Thank you for the opportunity to talk to your viewers. SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.

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Laura Carlsen is the Director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy in Mexico City. She focuses on US policy in Latin America and grassroots movements in the region.