Older Mexicans have had a tradition for 33 years: on the morning of every September 19th, they ask each other where were they when Mexico City was struck by a massive earthquake in 1985. Stories about the buildings that fell, the thousands of people trapped in debris and the committed citizens who tried to save as many as they could, became legend. These stories justified everything, from monthly evacuation drills to people panicking every time someone said “está temblando”.
For all those years, the more than 10,000 deaths that resulted from the earthquake justified such panic. But for a younger generation born after 1980, it felt like an exaggerated reaction: we assumed that builders and authorities had learned something from that tragedy, and that by now safety measurements should be at the highest standard. That’s why the traditional evacuation drill held every September 19th came to feel like a museum piece: important, yes, but borrowed from a time long gone.
The irony is this: in 2017, another massive earthquake hit Mexico City on the very same date of the one in 1985. Another irony: it hit two hours after the traditional earthquake drill. Yet, somehow, no one was ready — neither regarding safety protocols nor emotionally. On September 19th, I was out of the country, very far from Mexico. I learned about the earthquake while scrolling on Facebook: “This is a joke,” I thought, “and a bad one: it is impossible that two deadly earthquakes would strike on the same date in the same place.” But it happened. And it changed the shape of the city and, perhaps, the entire country.
First was the emergency itself: the city we thought was earthquake-proof suffered damage to thousands of buildings, and left 250,000 people with no place to live.
Second, the tragedy brought Mexicans together in ways we never imagined. Thousands of pop-up initiatives gathered food and water for victims. My social chats were full of friends delivering sandwiches to the emergency teams, and sharing information about collapsed buildings and missing people. I had never experienced such an overwhelming sense of unity in my country before.
Some projects came to life that day, and would become common practice. Perhaps the most important is Verificado 19S, a network of journalists and researchers who fact-check information that rapidly invades social media. Verificado19S became Verificado2018, a platform that effectively fought fake news during the national election campaign held earlier this year in Mexico. By taking their work beyond the earthquake, Verificado became a tangible example of how events confront the society they affect: Why can’t we always be the society that we are when we are facing a tragedy? Why can’t we work with each other every day, even if there is no emergency to respond to?
Third, the poor conditions of many buildings that collapsed was evidence that some public servants has been corrupt and paid a blind eye to enforcing construction and building standards. The outstanding work done by many independent citizens made it clear that Mexico did not have the government it deserves. The generalized emotions around the earthquake were a contributing factor in the outcome of Mexico’s elections earlier this year, with many voters asking if we are willing to tolerate another corrupt government.
Mexico City is very different today than it was on September 18th, 2017. The cool neighborhoods, severely affected, are still trying to recover. Many buildings are gone, and earthquake-related panic is now not a señora issue, but a general practice. Now we all have a story to tell every September 19th. One year after the horrible irony that hit us twice, we all feel closer to each other.
SEE BELOW FOR AN EXAMPLE OF COMMUNICATION INNOVATIONS IN THE FACE OF DISASTER:
As public affairs communications professionals during times of natural crisis, it is important to understand where we fit in both supporting the victims of those disasters and navigating the aftermath of implications it may have in future policy.
Natural disasters often have the tendency to leave communities devastated and in need of external support. Efforts by Weber Shandwick like Mi Casa Es Tu Casa allow public affairs practitioners to step in and serve as public servants during a community’s time of need. In response to Mexico’s earthquake, Weber Shandwick Brazil built the platform “Mi Casa es Tu Casa” by developing and adapting technological tools to help those with no home to connect with someone who could offer them temporary housing. The initiative helped 191 families, and spoke to almost 9 million people, bringing awareness to this face of the crisis. It also became an example of cooperation between practices (we will be always thankful to the Brazilian team, who helped us build the platform in only 48 hours), and a blueprint to approach future emergencies. The site was later adapted to help the 3,000 people displaced by the Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala.
By Rodrigo Diaz, Creative Director at Weber Shandwick Mexico