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Mexico’s long wait for building inspections

Rescuers search for survivors in a flattened building in Mexico City on September 21, 2017 two days after a strong quake hit central Mexico.
Yuri Cortez | AFP | Getty Images
Rescuers search for survivors in a flattened building in Mexico City on September 21, 2017 two days after a strong quake hit central Mexico.

Once Eduardo Mijares and his team of young architects and engineers completed their preliminary inspection of the vast public market Mercado Argentina following the Sept. 19 earthquake, the real work began.

When community members noticed the group of volunteers, decked out in neon work vests and hard hats, they didn't hesitate to approach.

"Could you come to my house? It's just around the corner," one woman asked, poking her head out of the window of her natural foods stall. "When are you coming to look at the school? Can we send our kids on Monday?" a man called out as the group left.

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Mexico City fared far better last week than it did on the same day in 1985, when a magnitude 8.1 quake leveled buildings across the city and left thousands dead. But there is still plenty of destruction, with some 40 buildings collapsing and trapping residents, and thousands more suffering damage, officials say. Some 194 people died in Mexico City alone – 27 of them children, according to the mayor. The total number of casualties has climbed to more than 330.

The city is just beginning the long process of deciding which structures will stay and which must go. Some residents have already learned their homes are uninhabitable, moving in with family or sleeping in temporary shelters, while others are trying to decide if they even want to risk a return to damaged – but possibly repairable – properties.

It's not a quick process, and it's taking a toll on jittery residents, on edge once again after a 6.1 aftershock swayed the city the following weekend. The inspections could result in many more families permanently losing their homes, and the process creates a test for public institutions that have historically been susceptible to corruption. Some estimate it could take months – or even a year – before at-risk buildings start to come down. Many see this as a dangerous proposition.

But for others, they'd rather avoid certain streets and leaning buildings if it means ensuring that they're thoroughly checked for signs of building code violations before vital evidence is demolished into a pile of rubble.

When the earth started to shake on Sept. 19, employees in a fifth-floor office building in the Roma Norte neighborhood evacuated past broken support beams and shattered walls.

The asset manager for the building, Rafael Espeja, immediately put out calls for an inspection, he says. An inspector with qualifications recognized by the city arrived the next day, deeming the structure, built in 1962, in need of demolition. Several support columns were floating a few inches off the ground. The neighboring building is evacuated for the time being, due to the risk of the office falling.

"That's why we are rushing with authorities and the insurance company to tear this down as soon as possible. If there's an aftershock, it could collapse," Espeja says.

But, according to Felix Villaseñor, the president of Mexico City's professional association of architects, even pressing cases like this one may not see any concrete action in terms of demolition for at least a month. Others put the estimate, given the flood of damage and layers of paperwork involved, closer to a year.

Mexico City's secretary of civil protection, Fausto Lugo, announced this week that there have been more than 10,000 buildings inspected so far, with at least 500 in need of demolition or major reconstruction, and another roughly 1,300 in need of repair. The city said it would initially make available some 3 billion pesos ($1.7 million) of its emergency response fund to help support victims of the quake and reconstruction efforts.

But the priority at the moment is putting resources toward search and rescue.

"We're getting an impressive number of requests for inspections," Villaseñor says. The majority are coming via an online form, which at one point had so much traffic that Google shut down the page, suspecting the deluge of requests were spam.

But for those living next door to damaged buildings, the idea of waiting even another day instills more anxiety. In the hard-hit Condesa neighborhood, Lorena Irita Ruiz, 52, looks up at a formerly eight-story building. Brass railings and window frames protrude over the sidewalk in a twisted pile of right angles after one floor collapsed onto another in the quake.

"And if we have a strong aftershock?" asks Ruiz, who is walking back from volunteering at a support center set up in the nearby Parque Mexico. "There are neighboring buildings, people on the street, we're all in danger while this kind of building remains," she says before a soldier patrolling the area asks her not to loiter.

After Mexico City's 1985 quake, building codes were modernized, matching or exceeding global standards for quake-prone cities. But implementation isn't always enforced.

A 2015 study of Mexico City building code compliance found that "It would appear that the regulator is not performing its duty" in ensuring the enforcement of building standards. Many of the mid-rise buildings evaluated in the study were found not to meet even minimum requirements of the capital's strict – at least on paper – codes.

Although inspectors doing the first take on damaged structures after Tuesday's quake say it appears that most buildings that fell or had significant damage were from prior to 1985, there were newer buildings in the mix, as well, underscoring the presence of corruption.

A brand new building in the Portales neighborhood crumbled in the quake, with engineers and architects at the building location reporting that the columns weren't built to code, according to Mexican news site Animal Politico. Two people died in the collapse.

"Some people are noting the differences between today and 1985 and saying, 'Look, there's clear evidence of improvement,'" says Paul Lagunes, an assistant professor at Columbia University's School for International and Public Affairs, who specializes in corruption and corruption control.

"That's fair. But 1985 was an extremely low bar…. Yes, we are doing better, but not as well as we should be."

In front of the Association of Architects, a line of nearly 100 eager volunteers fills the sidewalk. They're mostly recent graduates or young professionals hoping to contribute their engineering and architecture skills to the earthquake relief efforts. But it's also a professional development opportunity, as teams of less experienced volunteers are matched with experts like Mijares to conduct an inspection.

Back at the Mercado Argentina, Mijares hasn't identified any structural damage. But he found the experience heartening. He served as a volunteer on a team like this one when he was a young architect in 1985.

"These kids know far more about building safety than I did at that point in my career," he says. "I'm hopeful."