Quake awakens fears of disaster
By Oswaldo Mejía
On the afternoon of March 20 the swaying of buildings in Mexico City awakened old ghosts in the memories of the inhabitants when a 7.4 quake shook the metropolis. Thousands vacated offices, schools, shopping centers and homes. Time has passed, but fear is still wandering in the streets, within the people.
The epicenter was located in Ometepec, Guerrero, the quake caused by slippage of the Cocos Plate, an oceanic tectonic plate beneath the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Central America, named for Cocos Island. The frequent seismic activity associated with the Cocos Plate is not associated with the birth of a volcano in the area, as was initially speculated.
In an exclusive interview for Atención, Elena Centeno García, a researcher at the Department of Regional Geology of the Geology Institute of UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), explained that conditions are not right for the formation of a volcano, and that this is just the natural movement of the plates. In fact, she said, this activity may be beneficial because it releases energy, thus avoiding a major earthquake.
“Earthquakes occur every day,” said Centeno, “hundreds of them all around the planet of different magnitudes. The recent ones have been felt harder in urban areas, but even the 5.4 aftershock two days later, and the latest 6.4 aftershock in April, are within normal ranges. The real problem lies not in the occurrence of natural phenomena, but in the way we face these eventualities.
In other countries where seismic activity is frequent, such as Japan, residents are well aware of the risks and take what precautions they can. In 2011 Japan suffered a 9.0 quake that killed 15,866 people; another 3,084 were missing and 6.025 were wounded. This disaster occurred despite the advanced preparations; for that reason it is essential to be as prepared as possible in less developed countries.
In the case of Mexico, a country with vast experience with the tragedies resulting from earthquakes, such as the one in September 1985 that killed 10,000 people, the best way to deal with these events is to learn from past experiences, Centeno said.
She explained that even though the tremors generated uncertainty among the population, it is possible to create an atmosphere of calm and organization if proper information is disseminated by the media about the steps to follow in case of a tremor. The measures are as simple as keeping calm, following the instructions to vacate, conducting drills and having an emergency kit ready with important papers and basic supplies.
Some linked the tremors that occurred in Mexico City to Mayan predictions about the end of the world. According to Centeno, superstitions and the proliferation of apocalyptic prophecies greatly fuel confusion and uncertainty. Such interpretations divert attention from what is important to address.
If people understand these rules, the second step is to work with the city government in Mexico City and the local governments in the metropolitan area. They are required to provide security to citizens through a detailed analysis of the risk areas in an earthquake, in order to anticipate collapsing buildings, poles, bridges, houses or structures that represent a danger to the inhabitants of those regions.
Heeding earthquake alerts, responding calmly, requiring authorities to constantly monitor affected areas, investing in a culture of prevention, keeping the public informed and understanding the urgency of planning schemes to help to protect the public are all measures we can undertake to prevent human and economic losses in an earthquake.