Two devastating earthquakes recently rocked Mexico in the short span of 12 days, killing nearly 300 people and leaving many more in need of aid and assistance. The dual tragedies, largely worsened by geography, left the country struggling to recover and rebuild. But as outside nations flocked to send their condolences, many experts warned that the same fate could befall a number cities in their home countries as well.
The United States happens to be counted in that list.
The 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico on Tuesday originated in Puebla and topped buildings far from the site, including 75 miles away in Mexico City. At least 230 people have died so far, with many more casualties expected. That disaster came less than two weeks after an 8.1-magnitude earthquake off the coast — the strongest to hit Mexico in a century — killed at least 61 people in the country’s southern region.
The high death toll, as well as the damage done to infrastructure, is a cautionary tale for others. Modern-day Mexico is built atop three warring pieces of crust, something that makes the country deeply vulnerable to quakes. That natural phenomenon was worsened by colonization, especially in Mexico City — when Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area centuries ago, they drained the lake hosting the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, filling it in over hundreds of years. The resulting structure makes the city exceptionally precarious, something not helped by old buildings and poor infrastructure.
“Mexico City was built on what is now a dry lakebed,” said CNN Meteorologist Pedram Javaheri. “…This plays a large role in the intensity and how everything plays out when it comes to shaking.”
While Mexico City’s misfortune is outsized due to its location, it is hardly the only area made precarious by geography. In the United States, experts have pointed to several areas, including the western borders of Oregon and Washington, where a quake could be particularly devastating. But in the aftermath of Mexico’s twin-catastrophe, much of the conversation in the United States has focused on one city in particular: Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is notably in a better position than Mexico City, in no small part because of the latter’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean’s “ring of fire.” But Los Angeles is still in an undoubtedly precarious spot.
Sitting atop the San Andreas Fault, California is considered a “highly seismic active zone”; a 3.6-magnitude earthquake rocked Los Angeles on Monday, causing many residents anxiety. That quake is seemingly coincidental (experts say earthquakes typically occur at random, sometimes close to each other), but it did serve to highlight the dangerous situation in which residents find themselves.
Experts say a magnitude 7+ earthquake like the one that struck Mexico City would do extreme harm to the entire Los Angeles region — and that it’s really only a matter of time before one strikes. All of this is made worse by another glaring factor: shoddy building preparedness, especially when it comes to individual homes.
“[The] Mexico quake reminds us: science can tell us what the impact can be but society has to take action to prevent catastrophic damage,” Dr. Lucy Jones, a scientist and seismologist, tweeted on Tuesday.
To reduce the likelihood of individual devastation, Jones encouraged residents in vulnerable cities and areas to retrofit old buildings, increasing their odds of surviving powerful earthquakes and similar events.
Mexico quake reminds us: science can tell us what the impact can be but society has to take action to prevent catastrophic damage
— Dr. Lucy Jones (@DrLucyJones) September 19, 2017
Those who fail to take the proper precautions present a “big problem”, should the worst happen, explained Kelly Huston, deputy director of the California Office of Emergency Services. “It means … we will spend a lot of unnecessary time helping people who could have otherwise helped themselves, but decided they didn’t want to or didn’t have time,” Huston told NBC.
To head off any issues that might arise, local governments have been doing their best to buff up infrastructure or encourage maintenance, said Helen Chavez, who works for the Los Angeles County Office of Emergency Management.
“There has definitely been an effort to get people to upgrade buildings,” Chavez told ThinkProgress. “Retrofitting efforts are an important part of being prepared. Some of the buildings here that are most susceptible were built between 1940 and 1979. They’re often apartment buildings built on stilts, with hollow bases allowing for parking on the first level. Those have been identified as structures at risk.”
Chavez noted that the city of Los Angeles in particular has worked to encourage homeowners to upgrade and plan for inevitable quakes.
“There’s a number of things that the county has done to prepare residents for an earthquake,” she said. “We have an extensive emergency survival guide for Los Angeles county. It’s very comprehensive. We have it in nine different languages. And we’ve worked to make our website accessible and get the information out there. All the resources you need for a wide-scale disaster.”
She added, “Having a plan, what you’re going to do with your family, supplies, and knowing how to stay informed as the incident progresses, that’s what’s most important.”
Los Angeles faces a few other drawbacks that areas like Mexico City do not — for one thing, the city’s position on top of a fault line makes it harder to create an early warning system for when an earthquake strikes. Still, city and county officials say they’re well aware of the city’s geographic reality and are more focused on ensuring people are prepared and calm.
“It’s all how you say it,” Chavez said. “Yes, we have a number of fault lines, and yes there’s movement, and we’re overdue [for a quake]. We accompany that reality with some really good resources. It’s all about how you share the information. We don’t share it to alarm people. It helps make it more real. This is reality.”
While areas like Los Angeles are striving to prepare for “the big one,” the same can’t be said of the wider population. Disasters like Hurricane Harvey, which devastated southeastern Texas last month, and Hurricane Irma, which tore through numerous Caribbean islands before flooding Florida, have proven that much of the United States is woefully unready for natural crises.
Making preparation and recovery more challenging is the tense political climate. President Trump’s administration is pushing for major budget cuts to agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), both of which are increasingly crucial as natural disasters become more and more common.
“The president has definitely sent a signal with his budget that emergency management is not of interest,” Scott Knowles, a historian at Drexel University who studies risk and disaster, told the Washington Post in August.
Lack of funding is likely to exacerbate a pre-existing reality: many major U.S. cities, from New Orleans to Houston to Los Angeles, are disproportionately vulnerable to the impact of flooding, quakes, and other disasters. Trump’s slow dismantling of environmental policies put in place by former President Obama also means that orders calling for agencies to prepare for the impact of climate change are being rolled back. General preparedness efforts are also being stymied.
Where federal assistance is failing, local efforts are attempting to fill the void. In an editorial published Thursday, the Los Angeles Times advised readers to take heed in light of Mexico’s tragedy.
“An earthquake as big as the one that shook Mexico is something that will test everyone’s resolve and fortitude and ability to cope, both emotionally and physically,” the editorial ran. “No one wants to be tested like that. But we all need to prepare for the inevitability that we will be, sooner or later.”
Praising ShakeAlert, an earthquake warning system whose funding has been imperiled by Trump’s budget, the outlet also called on the president to restore funding — “a microfraction of what it will cost to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border”, it noted.
While those concerns have dominated the overall preparedness conversation, there is a cautious silver lining: the human element that shines during times of natural disaster.
“That’s a message we push — the inherent definition of a disaster is when the collective need outweighs the personal,” Chavez told ThinkProgress, noting that, while the footage out of Mexico was devastating, it also revealed the best in people. “Being on the lookout for the people around you is even more important in those instances. It’s you, but it’s also your community and your neighbors.”
That sense of human responsibility is what Chavez and her colleagues strive to remember as they work to equip people with the information necessary to survive the worst-case scenario.
“It’s very motivating,” she said, “and that’s what drives our work.”