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Emergency teams respond to Mexican earthquake


WASHINGTON (June 17, 1999) -- While search and rescue continues in Mexico

after Tuesday's powerful earthquake, U.S. disaster response leaders are in

continuing contact with aid partners in that country to help meet both

critical and long-term needs.

Though Mexican officials report less-than-expected damage, early

assessments show very concentrated pockets of devastation.

The U.S.-based United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has been in

contact with Mexico's Methodist-affiliated Social Action Committee as well

as with a disaster response coordinator who has been canvassing the area to

assess damage. UMCOR will send a damage assessment team to Mexico Monday.

Meanwhile the International Red Cross is meeting emergency needs by

offering food, water, and shelter. The 40-second quake, which measured 6.7

on the Richter scale, caused an at least 17 deaths. Hardest hit was the

state of Puebla, population 1.2 million, where 11 people died, about 120

buildings and 70 homes were leveled, and so far, 1,500 have been reported

with minor damage. Death and damage tolls could rise as emergency workers

visit smaller isolated towns.

Puebla, an industrial town with a picturesque historic district known as

the City of Tiles, is located about 55 miles east of Mexico City. The states of Morelos, Oaxaca, and Veracruz also reported deaths and damages. Five Catholic and two Methodist churches sustained heavy damage, and shattered glass and rubble everywhere has caused traffic tie-ups and hazardous travel.

"Apparently there are a good number of new buildings in Mexico that

withstood the earthquake well," said Susan Tubbesing, executive director of

the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute in Oakland, Calif. "But there

were still many, many adobe and masonry structures that aren't reinforced."

Like UMCOR, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) will also dispatch an emergency

response team from the U.S., which will coordinate with a team of engineers

from Guatemala. CRS spokesperson Kerry Hodges said that response will be

considered "early-stage" as first-hand accounts from local churches

continue to filter in.

Despite widespread power outages, the Christian Reformed World Relief

Committee (CRWRC) has been communicating via e-mail with their Mexican

partners. Response to an earthquake differs from other disasters because,

when structural damage is severe, people are without power and water, and

initial emergency response must last longer than normal. "In earthquakes,

the damage is characteristically local and severe," said Jacob Kramer, a

CRWRC relief team member.

"It also takes longer to simply locate everybody," added Whiteside.

Response officials are predicting that mental health needs could be

significant, especially since many Mexicans vividly remember the terrifying

1985 earthquake that killed 10,000 people. Then -- and this week on a

smaller scale -- initial "search and rescue" often meant neighbors finding

neighbors. The trauma of finding loved ones -- even if they are still alive

-- has a lasting effect on survivors.

In addition, response takes longer if local infrastructure leads to

unusable churches, public buildings and roads, frustrating to survivors and

response workers alike. The year after an earthquake, suicide rates often

rise 63 percent, according to research by the International Critical

Incident Stress Foundation.

But in long-term response, earthquake-damaged homes can be easier to

rebuild than those damaged by hurricanes, floods, or tornadoes because --

at least if the weather holds -- there is no water damage.

It is likely that there will also be a need for volunteer teams to travel

to Mexico to help rebuild homes. "But they won't be sent over until enough

time has passed so that they're not adding to the local strain -- after

about two months, in this case," said Whiteside. "After that, I would

predict that the biggest needs would be roofing and construction materials."

Response leaders anticipate well-coordinated volunteer teams, since Mexico

is already a popular choice for mission work. "Local teams are already set

up to work with visiting volunteers," said Whiteside.

As disaster response organizations work to ensure human need is met, U.S.

engineers are assisting their Mexican colleagues with a structural analysis

of buildings to ensure people's safe return -- and to be better prepared in

the event of another earthquake.

"Some of the newer buildings may have actually fared poorly," said

Tubbesing. "We are still deciding whether to send a team of engineers

on-site, but in any case we will be helping to analyze why certain

structures failed. That is the kind of research that helps us all."

Posted June 18, 1999

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