The Mass Scramble to Save Mexico City

September 22, 2017 Last Updated: September 23, 2017

When Mexico City suffered a devastating earthquake on Tuesday, Sept. 19, the city poured into the streets in a madly scrambled effort to find survivors.

“The citizens kind of took control,” said Anthony Hoffman, 43, a Canadian expat living in the heart of Mexico City in the trendy La Condensa, Roma neighborhood.

While Hoffman’s home escaped damage, he found himself in the middle of a disaster zone, with rubble in the streets and buildings collapsed all around him in the massive metropolis.

Volunteers pour over the rubble in an effort to rescue those trapped within in Mexico City on Sept 20. (Rodrigo)
Volunteers pour over the rubble in an effort to rescue those trapped within in Mexico City on Sept 20. (Rodrigo Coronel Villalobos)

“It’s pretty devastating, buildings are down and continue to fall, rescue efforts are occurring but there is resistance as the army is trying to control search efforts to rescue trapped victims,” said Hoffman, capturing one of the major challenges facing the ruined city.  

Hoffman said by the second day the volume of people in the streets looking to save those still left in the rubble had become overwhelming in some areas.

The army has gradually secured damaged areas around the city. With that control has come restrictions on who can enter those areas. And when rescue efforts require the removal of material using large machines, rumors can spread quickly that the government is callously sacrificing those trapped in the rubble.

Hoffman said it is difficult to know what is happening on the ground and media reports are also not widely trusted. But the feelings many Mexicans have toward their government can be severe.

“You can’t trust anything that you are reading here, people are saying this and people are saying that,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman talked to people lined up on the streets, waiting for efforts to rescue those inside, or sometimes simply to retrieve their bodies.

While people have done much to rescue those trapped inside, sometimes there is simply too much rubble. That is when the army said it must bring in heavy equipment.

“They are bringing the machines because they can’t tunnel anymore,” said Hoffman.

He said people in Mexico don’t have the same regard or expectation from their government and often despise it.

Despite the army securing many of the damaged sites, volunteers are still the driving force of rescue efforts. As the hours turn into days, their coordination has improved.

 

Volunteers load into a transport shuttle organized by a volunteer command post in Mexico City on Sept 21, 2017. (Anthony Hoffman)
Volunteers load into a transport shuttle organized by a volunteer command post in Mexico City on Sept 21, 2017. (Anthony Hoffman)

The first major volunteer command posts were in the Fuente de las Cibeles in Colonia Roma and Parque México in La Condesa. Now they have spread.

“The volunteer command posts are in other places in the city as well. From these places they have volunteer motorcycle groups that deliver items to various sites as needed,” said Hoffman.

Those items can include food, shovels, or safety gear. The command posts also organize transportation for teams of volunteers to be dispatched to areas around the city.

As the military has secured damaged sites, that safety gear has become a requirement for volunteers looking to enter the site.

“Our 22-year-old daughter was just at Xochimilco fracionamiento las Flores and the marines came and removed volunteers because they didn’t have helmets and vests,” said Hoffman.

Volunteers in required safety wear discuss rescue efforts at a volunteer command post on Sept. 21, in Mexico City (Anthony Hoffman)
Volunteers in required safety wear discuss rescue efforts at a volunteer command post on Sept. 21, in Mexico City (Anthony Hoffman)

That safety clothing both protects volunteers and lends them a look of professionalism, which Hoffman thought may be a public relations win for the government as photographs of rescue efforts gain the appearance of a government coordinated response.

While the government has supplied some of that safety clothing, much of it has come through donations. Hoffman said he and his wife had work gloves, face masks, and some tools left over from recent renovations that they donated. Later on, when he tried to volunteer, he was told he needed to have gloves.

“Many people are buying their own stuff,” said Hoffman.