Photos: Mexicans show the world how to work together when an earthquake hits

All hands on deck.
All hands on deck.
Image: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
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The earthquake that hit central Mexico yesterday (Sept. 19) summoned terrifying flashbacks of the massive destruction wrought by the most deadly tremor to shake the country’s capital, 32 years ago to the day.

It also awakened the same spirit of solidarity in ordinary citizens that carried Mexico City through the first days after the 1985 quake, an 8.1-magnitude monster that killed thousands and crushed entire blocks. At that time, residents had to rely on one another for rescue because paralyzed authorities struggled to respond.

This time, civilians again sprung into action as soon as the ground stopped shaking. Neighbors started collecting broken pieces of concrete in buckets; pedestrians took up the job of directing traffic (link in Spanish.) Less than 24 hours later, Mexicans had erected an expansive recovery operation working to fill every conceivable gap in the official structure. Battery brigades are being deployed to charge the dying cell phones of rescue workers. Engineers and architects are assessing battered buildings for safety; veterinarians are volunteering to help wounded animals. Twitter posts specify exactly what supplies are needed where.

The hive mind has kicked in again, its power now multiplied by technology and social media. At the ground level, the response is surprisingly familiar. Here’s are a few images of what it looked like in 1985, and in 2017.

Human chains

After both earthquakes, lines of citizens formed next to collapsed buildings to clear broken pieces of buildings covering victims.

Rescue workers pore through the debris of a collapsed building in Mexico City
This is how the “human chains” looked in 1985.
Image: AP Photo/Reed Saxon

Here are some in action, in 2017:

A call for silence

A raised hand is enough to silence the din of recovery work. It’s the sign emergency workers use when they need to strain their ears to hear whether there’s life under the rubble.

traffic comes to a standstill in Mexico City after 1985 quake to listen for trapped victims in damaged buildings,
1985: Drivers in Mexico City push their cars during rush hour to avoid disturbing rescue workers listening for trapped victims in damaged buildings.
Image: AP Photo/Pete Leabo
First responders raise their hands asking for silence as they work on removing the rubble after Sept 19 earthquake in mexico city
2017: First responders raise their hands, asking for silence.
Image: AP Photo/Gustavo Martinez Contreras

Hand-written news

One of the biggest questions that reverberates in the hours and days after an earthquake is “Are my loved ones OK?” Today, Facebook and other social networks are playing a big role in answering that question. In some cases, though, marker and paper is still the most efficient way.

1985 Mexico quake survivors gather to check a list of the dead
Survivors of the 1985 quake gather around a grim list with the names of victims who were found.
Image: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Similar records are popping up next to the ruins of buildings toppled by the latest quake.

Feeding the city

Everyone has to eat. In an emergency, that means rescue workers, both official and volunteer, displaced families, and victims. Citizens are taking over that task in 2017 as they did in 1985.

Victims of Mexico City’'s 1985 earthquakes receive milk from a relief worker
1985: Feeding the homeless and displaced after the earthquake in Mexico City.
Image: AP Photo/Jack Smith
donations of bottled water and food after an earthquake in Mexico City, Mexico
2017: A mountain of donated food and water materialized in a Mexico City neighborhood less than 24 hours after the earthquake.
Image: Reuters/Henry Romero

Staying strong

In the face of widespread disaster, it’s necessary to quash despair in order to get the job done—at least temporarily. Below, a couple of examples of how Mexicans did it three decades ago and how they are doing it today.

A unity banner in Mexico City after 1985 quake
1985: “Tepito is united” read a banner hung by residents of a tough Mexico City barrio. (Next to it, an attempt at humor: “This corner is not longer for sale, it is being given away.”)
Image: AP Photo

A few hours after the 2017 quake, a group of Mexico City dwellers burst into a chorus of traditional song Cielito Lindo. The refrain: Sing and don’t cry.

That kind of camaraderie is not usually on display in Mexico’s biggest city, whose residents have a reputation for being jaded. There is some hope that the feeling will last long after the earthquake that unleashed it, as it did in 1985. The spontaneous cooperation that emerged in the hours and days following that disaster led to long-term civil organizing and political activism that eventually helped topple Mexico’s seven-decade, one-party rule in 2000.

“A week ago we were talking about how the quake in ’85 woke up Mexicans to the rot,” tweeted one commentator. “Today, that solidarity is coming back.”

And just as in 1985, Mexico’s political system, hobbled by corruption, is in need of a serious shake-up.