The Earth Beneath Your Feet

When the shaking stops, what next?

The Earth Beneath Your Feet
Photography by Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo

An earthquake strikes Mexico City. When the shaking stops, what next? If you’re OK, grab boots and helmet and help those who aren’t.

Pedro Hernández-Rámos witnessed the quake from afar, though he knew his family was in the thick of it in Mexico City. On his computer screen in Santa Clara, images and video of the damage of the earthquake rolled in: the lurch and collapse of buildings, the fear on faces and terror in voices as the earth roared. In the newsroom of the newspaper Milenio, a cell phone video caught the room achurn as staff dived under desks. “Windows start popping, and you can see that they have those X-trusses, to reinforce the building, and still, bookshelves start coming down, computers falling off the desks,” Hernández-Rámos says.

The 7.1-magnitude quake hit just after 1 p.m. on September 19—a Thursday—with an epicenter in the city of Puebla, southeast of Mexico City. The shaking lasted about 20 seconds, toppling scores of buildings in the capital and hitting towns and villages outside the city even harder, killing 361 people. The earthquake came just 12 days after an 8.1-magnitude quake centered off the coast of Chiapas killed 98 people in what was the most powerful earthquake in a century. The September 19 quake also hit on the 32nd anniversary of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that shook Mexico City in 1985. That devastating quake took 10,000 lives. Hernández-Rámos lived in Mexico City from 1975–80, surviving several quakes including one in 1979, when the only major structure to collapse was at the Jesuit university in Mexico City. Today he is an associate professor in the School of Education and Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara. But his family still lives in Mexico.

His brother, Santiago Hernández-Rámos, is an architect in Mexico City. He was at his office in the Lomas neighborhood when the earthquake hit. His kids were at school—which wasn’t damaged. (Elsewhere, another elementary school collapsed, killing children inside.) His wife was at home in Colonia Del Valle, a few miles southeast. Six blocks away from his house, an apartment building tumbled. Eight blocks in another direction, a large apartment building fell. Streets were blocked off, which made driving impossible. Santiago made the two-hour trek home on foot to make sure his family members were OK. They were.


Earthquakes are not given names like hurricanes. There’s little warning. They strike—for agonizing seconds—then stop. Then the aftershocks. “They literally make you feel that the ground under you is not safe,” Pedro Hernández- Rámos says. “It is profoundly disquieting to be on stable ground, and then in a matter of fractions of second, you start moving.”

Mexico City was built on a lake bed. The ground beneath is soft and wet, susceptible to liquefaction—essentially dirt becoming liquid. After the devastating 1985 quake, new regulations ensured buildings could better withstand earthquakes. Quake preparedness drills are held each year on September 19, the anniversary of the 1985 quake. The 2017 quake occurred just hours after the drills had finished.

The timing was ironic but fortunate. People were ready to help, and they started right away. Even something as simple as taking the password off Wi-Fi networks so others could latch on and connect with loved ones is standard practice. Anything you can do to help, you do.


After checking in with his family, Santiago grabbed his work boots and construction helmet and walked to the nearest collapsed building to assist with recovery efforts. He wasn’t alone. There was a line of volunteers and a checklist: Do you have boots, helmet, a safety vest? If so, write your name, blood type, and the phone number of an emergency contact—and start moving debris. “It was incredibly efficient, everybody was deeply concentrated, it was like a very fast-moving production line,” Pedro Hernández-Rámos says. “You could not allow yourself to be distracted for even one second, because the stuff was coming so quickly.”

Nationally, people rallied around Mexico City. The Telmex Foundation, which is related to the Telmex phone company, set up two numbers to collect donations. Telmex pledged to match donations five to one. Petitions circulated demanding political parties in Mexico, which receive federal funding for campaigns, voluntarily surrender the money for the 2018 national elections, to help with relief. A few did. Some quibbled about where the money would go, citing the ubiquitous corruption that afflicts the country. The September 19 earthquake hit the regions of Chiapas and Oaxaca hard—after they had been devastated by the quake just twelve days earlier. But even there, there was a strong spirit of community. Pedro Hernández-Rámos recalls seeing a photo of an elderly woman approaching a collection center with a bag of food. “She’s dressed very humbly, she has no shoes,” he says, “and she’s in the act of giving the bag to the people. Whatever you have, you give.”

MATT MORGAN is the associate editor of this magazine.