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Mexico City Residents Face Housing Uncertainties After Earthquake

23 Sep 2017 10:37 pm
By Robbie Whelan and Dudley Althaus 

MEXICO CITY -- The 7.1-magnitude earthquake that tore through central Mexico on Tuesday left at least 305 dead, 167 of them here in the capital city, causing wrenching terror, panic and sadness as news of the destruction and loss of life rolled in.

Now, Chilangos -- as Mexico City residents are known -- who survived the disaster are dealing with a new challenge: the gnawing uncertainty of not knowing when, if ever, they will be able to return to their homes.

The tremor -- which came 32 years to the day after an earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people and leveled swaths of the capital -- caused serious damage to at least 3,000 buildings in Mexico City, according to Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera, leaving thousands of families homeless and many structures totally uninhabitable. About 40 structures collapsed completely.

Across the city, soldiers, police officers and representatives of the government's Civil Protection agency stood guard at buildings with crumbled facades, shattered plate-glass windows and sagging walls, their entrances roped off with yellow tape.

On one street in the Miravalle neighborhood in the city's southeast, the partial collapse of two six-story apartment complexes killed three and injured eight. On Friday, the street's resident's clamored around Víctor Fernando Pérez Ramos, a representative of the local government, and peppered him with questions about when they could return to their houses.

He told the residents that there were hundreds of unstable buildings in the area and that homeowners needed to file damage reports at the local delegation office.

"If there's an aftershock, this street could be very unsafe," he explained to the worried homeowners. "For this reason, we're being very cautious."

Carlos Mendoza, 51 years old, lives a few doors down from one of the apartment buildings and said he had been able to re-enter his building, which had suffered minor damage, only once to retrieve clothes, important documents and some electric guitars belonging to his two sons.

"They have to knock down these buildings as fast as possible," Mr. Mendoza said, referring to the partially collapsed apartment buildings where the residents had died. "There are schools on this street and having unstable buildings nearby is too dangerous," he said.

Immediately following the earthquake, volunteer teams of architects and engineers assembled and registered with the government to conduct damage assessments of buildings.

Ulises Omar Zúñiga, an architect who owns a design studio called Taller 24 in the hard-hit Roma Norte neighborhood, said Saturday that he and four of his employees underwent an emergency-certification course to inspect for earthquake damage organized by Mexico City's National Autonomous University, or UNAM, and had inspected 12 buildings so far.

Mr. Zúñiga explained that because of the location of the epicenter of Tuesday's quake, about 110 miles southwest of Mexico City, the seismic waves remained relatively compressed by the time they hit the capital, and as a result most of the roughly 40 buildings that collapsed were between 6 and 12 stories tall. The 1985 quake was stronger, but centered farther away, and as a result, its shock waves targeted taller buildings than Tuesday's tremor.

"There are a lot of buildings that from the outside look fine, but when you go inside, you see very serious damage," Mr. Zúñiga said. "Especially when there is damage to interior columns, that's when there is real danger of collapse. There are many buildings that don't have structural damage but they definitely need reinforcement, because they would not survive another strong earthquake."

The quake could cause even further delays for families and property owners who live in these types of buildings, Mr. Zúñiga said. Under normal circumstances, it takes about three months to obtain permits from Mexico City to do structural reinforcement work on a building, but since the city is in a state of emergency and faces a huge volume of permit requests, it could take up to a year, he said.

Tuesday's earthquake caused less damage than the one in 1985 thanks in part to strict building codes imposed in response to the quake that required builders, among other rules, to use more structural steel in new construction, rather than pure concrete. Many of the buildings that collapsed this time were built in the 1960s and 1970s with poor-quality concrete mixes, which are particularly dangerous in a collapse because of their tremendous weight and brittleness.

"Concrete is like a cookie: it bends and it immediately breaks," said Malcom Ricardo Tello, a structural engineer who works for the Spanish infrastructure firm Sacyr SA. "Steel is more flexible, and permits more balance. Beams can bend and fold and then regain their position."

Even so, many buildings that were built after the 1985 earthquake were also badly damaged on Tuesday. Julio Padilla, a 25-year-old who works in publicity for television networks, lived with his parents in a six-story building in the Roma Sur neighborhood. Two of the four walls of their condominium, which they bought just after it was built in 1991, collapsed inward, and the facade of the building fell off in pieces.

Mr. Padilla, who is living with a friend temporarily, said neither of his parents -- a retired small-business owner and a retired airline secretary -- had pensions or property insurance, and the family had mostly given up hope on ever living in the building again.

"The fear is that we'll never again be able to live in the comfort we once had," he said. "Compensation from the government is a possibility, but we have no idea how long that will take."

In the Tlalpan district to the south of the capital, at least 21 people were killed when a five-story apartment building, part of a residential complex built roughly 60 years ago, collapsed after the quake. On Friday, as rescue workers combed the rubble, hundreds of residents of the nine other buildings in the working-class complex gathered in a park a few blocks away to debate their options.

Many in the crowd said they have lived in the 60 year old complex their entire lives, inheriting two or three bedroom apartments from their parents and raising children of their own in them. They're now uncertain when they can return to their homes, if ever.

Their apartments -- worth roughly $60,000 each -- represent all the material wealth many of these people have, and few, if any, have property insurance. Many worried that if the buildings are condemned, there would be no money to compensate homeowners or pay for extensive repairs.

"It can take a lot of time to figure this out," Marisol Arriaga, a primary schoolteacher who took charge of the gathering, told her neighbors over a megaphone. "It might be month, six months, longer. We need patience."

Alejandra Cisneros stood in the street across from the complex, barely containing tears as her children returned from their apartment with a garbage bag full of sheets and pillows. Ms. Cisneros was born in that same apartment 38 years ago, she said, and she thinks she may never live there again.

But Ms. Cisneros's thoughts were of a friend who lived in the building that fell. The woman was at work when the quake struck, but her son and daughter, aged 11 and 6, were at home and were killed. They were playmates of her own two children, Ms. Cisneros said.

"She now is left without her children, without her home, without hope," Ms. Cisneros said, her voice quivering. "We have lost a lot. But many have lost much more."

Write to Robbie Whelan at robbie.whelan@wsj.com and Dudley Althaus at Dudley.Althaus@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 23, 2017 18:37 ET (22:37 GMT)

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