Still More Victims in Mexico’s Quakes: Legions of Displaced

By MARINA FRANCO and KIRK SEMPLE

The New York Times  

One of many makeshift shelters in Mexico City. Thousands of people whose homes were destroyed, or even just damaged, by the recent quakes are in an exhausting state of limbo. Credit Carlos Jasso/Reuters

MEXICO CITY — They are a population adrift, cast loose by a disaster, they sleep on couches, in makeshift shelters and in their cars; wear borrowed clothes and hand-me-downs from donation piles; and, separated from their kitchens, rely on others’ cooking, each plate a reminder of their restless, unanchored state.

The earthquake on Sept. 19 killed at least 337 people in central Mexico and injured thousands of others. But it also created another class of victims: the displaced.

They number in the many thousands and count among them the very rich and the very poor, from city dwellers who lived in luxury high-rises to farmers in adobe huts. They include those whose buildings collapsed, but also those whose buildings have been declared structurally unsound and, while standing for now, face the likelihood of demolition.

Still others occupy an even less certain place: Their homes are fine save for the fact that they abut a building at risk of collapse.

“I still cry often,” said Elizabeth Flores, 50, a property manager who owns an apartment in a five-story walk-up in Mexico City that was heavily damaged. She has since been staying with a friend.

“This was my home,” Ms. Flores said. “Just that morning I had eaten breakfast there and made my bed. We went from modest comfort to having not just our homes but our lives in ruins.”

It remains unclear exactly how many buildings in Mexico were damaged by the earthquake last week, or how many people have been forced from their homes.

Federal officials said Wednesday that the quake on Sept. 19, and one on Sept. 7 that struck mainly the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, damaged more than 153,000 homes, with more than 24,000 destroyed and more than 46,000 damaged so severely as to be uninhabitable.

In Mexico City, at least 38 buildings collapsed in the quake. The city’s mayor has said about 500 have been deemed “high risk” and would have to be demolished or have major reconstruction before people could return. Most of those buildings are residential.

 

Public and private efforts to help displaced people with housing and reconstruction needs have begun to take shape. On Tuesday, the authorities in Mexico City announced a plan to provide low-interest loans and other financial assistance to homeowners, depending on their needs and the conditions of their homes. The city has also promised financial assistance for renters.

President Enrique Peña Nieto has promised that the government would “directly support families with resources and materials” to repair damage and build new homes, and he announced Wednesday that his administration would help the country’s most powerful business leaders obtain private-sector assistance for reconstruction through a newly created fund.

A project called Arriba Mexico has started a website that invites people to “book a symbolic stay in a ruined home and help rebuild Mexico,” with the proceeds going toward relief efforts for victims, including temporary housing. The offers are truly symbolic; donors will not set foot on the properties.

“Stay in a gorgeous ruined apartment (parking included) in Atlixco, Puebla,” says one listing, beneath the photo of a building reduced to rubble. The price is $44 a night.

The future for many of the displaced, at least in the near term, is highly uncertain, leaving them in a frustrating, exhausting transitional state that could test friendships and strain relationships.

Last week’s quake drove Ana Paula Velasquez from her apartment in the Roma Sur neighborhood, where she and her husband, daughter and mother lived. Their building was found to be unsafe, and its residents scattered to hotels and to the homes of relatives and friends.

Ms. Velasquez, 39, and her family spent the first night after the earthquake with a friend of her mother’s, and the second at a relative’s home.

She and her husband then decided to send their daughter to live with family friends while they, along with Ms. Velasquez’s mother, moved into a shelter that had opened in a grade school in their neighborhood.

Hundreds of Mexico City buildings still stand but cannot be occupied. “If I could just reach in,” one survivor said. “Get stuff like the invoice that proves I own my car.” Credit Alfredo Estrella/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It was the primary school that her daughter, now 13, once attended.

“Ironic, isn’t it?” Ms. Velasquez said, sitting on a bench designed for small children. Classrooms had been converted to dormitories, with mattresses on the floor.

Ms. Velasquez, a former receptionist for a parking lot company, had decided to move to the shelter in part because she did not want to impose on friends and family. In addition, she said, the shelter has functioned as an outlet for information about legal assistance and other aid for earthquake victims. Staying there allows her to remain on top of her case.

“The good thing is that most of us are alive”

If you let this get cold, there’s even less chance the government will do something,” she said.

The shelter is scheduled to close on Friday, and the family will be forced to move to another one, though she is not sure where.

In the Portales Sur neighborhood, evacuated residents of a three-tower complex on Tokio Street have set up an encampment of tents in front of the building and organized a round-the-clock patrol to keep an eye on it.

Two towers are leaning precipitously, and the entire complex has sunk by one story. Demolition is certain.

The residents’ constant presence ensures that they do not miss a visit from a utility company representative, or a lawyer, or officials who might be able to clarify what happens next, including whether they will be able to recover their belongings.

Mario Jiménez, 54, a restaurant worker who lived on the fourth floor, says he has been able to look into his apartment from an upper-floor window next door.

“And I just think: It is right there. If I could just reach in,” he said. “Get stuff like the invoice that proves I own my car, to that one jacket I like, to a pot from the kitchen. It’s the story of a life, if you will, and it is stuck there. And who knows if we will have access to it again.”

Longer-term questions for many also remain unanswered, like whether new apartment buildings will rise to replace those that are demolished, allowing developers and unit owners to recover their investments. Many homeowners in Mexico do not have property insurance.

Nobody believes that the process will be quick, particularly if the aftermath of the devastating 1985 earthquake is any indication. That quake flattened hundreds of buildings in Mexico City and caused structural damage to thousands of others in the capital, many of which were later demolished.

Rebuilding in some areas of Mexico City took more than a decade. Some buildings slated for demolition became ensnarled in litigation for years.

“The one thing we know for sure right now is that our recovery is in for the long haul,” said Oscar Ramírez, 52, an engineer who owns an apartment in a Mexico City building that, though only a year old, collapsed in last week’s quake.

“The good thing is that most of us are alive,” he said. “And we just hope that we are not forgotten.” The top elected official from the district vowed on Tuesday to punish the building’s developer for “endangering people and using low-quality materials.”

Neighbors of the building where Ms. Flores, the property manager, lived in the Letrán Valle district have also set up a round-the-clock watch, taking turns on four-hour shifts. They are waiting for a final ruling by the authorities on whether the building can be saved or must be demolished.

Despite the safety concerns, however, several residents have quietly resumed living in their apartments.

“Some don’t have anywhere else to go,” said Juan de la Barrera, 70, a resident and retired real estate broker.

He admitted he had visited his apartment, hanging out for a couple of hours at a stretch, though not staying overnight.

“I’ve done it just for the comfort,” he explained. “My clothes are there, my things. There’s no place like home.”