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Buildings In Mexico Keep Falling Days After Deadly Earthquake

Sep 21, 2017
Originally published on September 21, 2017 5:59 pm
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Officials in Mexico say more than 270 people have died from Tuesday's earthquake. Most of the deaths have been in the country's capital, Mexico City. The mayor says as of last night, 38 buildings had totally collapsed. Thousands more are heavily damaged. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports that many of those buildings were built well after the deadly 1985 earthquake.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK REVERSING)

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: A backhoe scoops up rubble outside the Enrique Rebsamen school in southern Mexico City. Their rescue workers have been searching for survivors 'round the clock. Mariana Tecillo lives a block away in a six-story apartment building where many of the kids lived who went to the school.

MARIANA TECILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "So many playmates are dead now. It's just horrible," she says. Tecillo's building has damage, too, and she can't get back in until it's inspected. It's a new building constructed after the deadly 1985 earthquake that claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people. She says the wing of the school where the children died was also newly built.

TECILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The school has been there for 40 years," she says, "but the part that collapsed" - the three-story-wing - "was just recently built." NPR couldn't confirm the year of construction, but Mexico City engineer Paulina Escobar says she's been inundated with calls from owners of brand-new buildings who say they have major damage, too.

PAULINA ESCOBAR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "There are many construction companies whose work is not very good," she says. With the population of the city on the rise and the demand for housing enormous, Escobar says new constructions in some cases has been hastily built. She's had more than 10 clients with new buildings call her to complain about major cracks and uninhabitable structural damage. But geophysicist Ross Stein says due to Mexico City's high seismic activity, it has some of the toughest construction codes.

ROSS STEIN: It rates highly in the world. And of course - and that's because there are excellent seismic engineers in Mexico. The problem with any code is its enforcement.

KAHN: Engineers say the rapid rise in the city's population and demand for housing has strained the government's ability to keep up with inspections and code enforcement. However, geophysicist Stein says new buildings with damage could be up to code since after all, the highest standards, known as minimal life safety, don't dictate that new buildings can't suffer damage, even major structural loss, just that they don't collapse.

STEIN: And that's it. That's all that's being requested or asked of the building.

KAHN: Mexico City's civil protection agency that oversees building construction could not immediately provide anyone for comment. But in an interview over Skype, Kit Miyamoto, seismic safety commissioner for California, says Mexico's building codes are similar to those of his home states. He says another reason why some buildings that survived the 1985 quake but fell in Tuesday's was because of how close the epicenter this time was to the city.

KIT MIYAMOTO: Different type of earthquakes do affect different types of building.

KAHN: He says the 1985 quake, which was centered further from Mexico City, hurt high-rises more. This quake, he said, which was significantly closer, hits smaller buildings less than six stories. Whether it was shoddy construction, lax enforcement or just Mother Nature, engineer Paulina Escobar says Mexico's citizens need to demand more accountability.

ESCOBAR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Hopefully the second time around we've learned to build smarter and safer," she says, "if not for us, then for the next generation." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.