Earthquake in Mexico: Why the Country Was Ready This Time

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This week's powerful quake was reminiscent of one in 1985, but the response was much different.

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A member of Mexico's civil protection service carries fruit belonging to street vendors during an evacuation / Reuters

A 7.4 earthquake hit central and south Mexico today around noon, with its epicenter near Ometepec, Guerrero, but felt strongly in the capital and as far away as Guatemala. There are no reported deaths so far, and only limited damage has been described, although the tremor is said to have caused power-outages for some 1.5 million Mexicans.

The earthquake today was reminiscent in size of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico city, that topped in at 8.1 on the Richter scale, but not in aftermath. For one thing the infrastructure today is much better than in 1985, when 400 buildings were leveled, including hospitals, hotels, offices, apartment buildings, and schools. Due to this mass destruction and tragic loss of life (10,000 people were killed), officials began demanding and enforcing stricter building codes for Mexico City, presumably resulting in the more limited damage this time around.

But more than physical infrastructure, the 1985 earthquake highlighted the worst of the non-democratic political regime. President Miguel de la Madrid was virtually absent in the initial days, and when he did engage the media, he spent more time downplaying the damage than addressing the situation. Perhaps worse, few police, army, or governmental officials came to help dig out survivors, hand out supplies, or shepherd the nearly 200,000 homeless to shelter. In fact, the ineffectual response of the federal and capital governments to the 1985 earthquake helped spur Mexico's long transition to democracy.

Already today, the government's response has also been one of immediate communication and action. Felipe Calderón began live tweeting updates on the damage and the status of Mexico's social services within hours of the quake, and the governor of Oaxaca, Gabino Cué Monteagudo, told media that he had called the mayors of the most affected towns.

While the earthquake today may have brought back memories from 1985, Mexico has reaffirmed through its response that it is a not the same country it was before. The response today across all levels of government (and regardless of party) shows how much Mexico has changed.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Shannon K. O'Neil

Shannon K. O'Neil is the Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She blogs at "Latin America's Moment."

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