'Like a ship in a sea of broken concrete': a reporter remembers 1985 Mexico quake

On the same day 32 years ago, a reporter awakened with a jolt in a Mexico City apartment.

Is the West Coast ready? More than 800,000 participated in last fall's earthquake drill

Then and now: Rescue workers and volunteers search collapsed buildings for survivors in September 1985 and September 2017 (Deborah Wilson/Chris Corday/CBC)

When news and images of the latest Mexico City earthquake started flooding social media, the significance of the date didn't sink in until a colleague mentioned the coincidence.

On the same day 32 years ago, I was awakened with a jolt on my friends' guest cot in their Mexico City apartment.

In the magnitude 8.0 earthquake that followed that first shake, our building rocked violently like a ship in a sea of broken concrete. We grabbed onto door frames for stability as the contents of the kitchen shelves crashed to the floor.

Sounds of scraping, grinding, shattering glass and neighbours' shouts filled the air.  

In September 1985, I had abandoned steady work at the Vancouver Sun to go work for the English-language Mexico City News. Despite minimal Spanish language skills, I dreamed of adventure as a journalist in Latin America.

That morning, in those terrifying few minutes that seemed unending, I regretted that decision.

Piles of rubble

After the shaking subsided, we headed out into the ruined city to work. Across the street a brick apartment house opened up like a doll house, its roof and walls gone. A few blocks away a taller building slowly tilted then crashed to the ground.

We picked our way around piles of rubble blocking streets on the long walk to the newspaper office. Streets were impassable. Residents called for loved ones in the ruins and for help from passers-by. Turning one corner we were met by panicked residents fleeing a gas leak. Fires sparked in the ruins of some buildings where many victims remained trapped.  

While estimates vary, the September 1985 Mexico earthquake killed thousands of people and destroyed hundreds of buildings. Many damaged buildings collapsed in aftershocks that followed the initial 8.0 magnitude quake. (Deborah Wilson/Chris Corday/CBC)

My time in Mexico City lasted just a few months before other opportunities led back to Canada.

Over the decades that followed, the vivid memories of the 1985 earthquake faded and felt increasingly surreal.

At times I wondered: Did the sky really flash with strange coloured lights after the tremor? Did I really see descriptions of recovered body parts posted outside the makeshift morgue in the baseball stadium?

Ready on the West Coast?

We all know the basic science by now: A magnitude 9 or greater subduction earthquake is expected on the West Coast within the next couple of hundred years. A significant risk of a damaging seismic event is expected within the next 50 years.

I pay attention to seismic risks in buildings (like unreinforced brick ones) and unstable soils, but I do not worry about the frequent small earthquakes that are rarely felt.

I've neglected to prepare a proper earthquake kit or emergency plan.

Left: September 1985. Mexican army with blankets outside the National Palace. Right: September 2017. Water for survivors and volunteers in a city park. (Deborah Wilson/Chris Corday/CBC)

If the risk feels remote to me, how do you motivate people who've never felt or seen the direct consequences of one?

That is the challenge for Brittany Schina, co-chair of the Great British Columbia ShakeOut. The organization is preparing for this year's Oct. 19 exercise as part of its mandate to educate British Columbians about what to do in the case of a major earthquake.

"I don't think there's good data out there about how prepared British Columbians are," Schina told me this week.

Widespread apathy in B.C.

The assessment of a California consultant in a 2014 report to the B.C. government was not encouraging.

In the British Columbia Earthquake Preparedness Consultation Report, Henry Renteria found widespread public and institutional apathy about the risk because of a lack of significant seismic activity near highly populated areas.

As a result, Renteria said, earthquake preparedness lacked day-to-day attention, and those programs had been cut or restricted in growth with resources devoted to other priorities instead.

The September 19, 1985 earthquake led to building code changes and an early earthquake warning system to alert residents before shaking starts. (Chris Corday/Deborah Wilson/CBC)

Schina believes public awareness since that 2014 report is reflected in the increased interest in the B.C. ShakeOut. More than 800,000 participated in last October's provincewide earthquake drill, and 530,000 are registered so far this year.

"They know why they need to do it," she said. "But of course we can't reach everyone. We're trying."

She attributes the interest to increased government investment in seismic programs and preparedness, as well as international coverage of earthquakes like one this week  in Mexico.

Four days after the latest Mexico earthquake, that long-ago event and the looming reality of a comparable or stronger one here on Canada's West Coast feel suddenly real again.

About the Author

Deborah Wilson

CBC Victoria producer

Deborah Wilson is a journalist with CBC Radio in Victoria, B.C.