7 Things You Don’t Realize Until Your First Earthquake

September 19, 2018

|Zoralis Pérez
mexico city earthquake september 19th 2017 survivor experience

That day at 1:14 pm, I looked up at my coworker and saw raw fear written all over her face. Then, I felt the ground shaking, and I knew we had to get out somehow.

My first earthquake happened a year ago, on September 19th, 2017. I know it’s been a year because everyone has been talking about the anniversary coming up, and because I can see the date on the calendar -there’s no denying it-, but what I feel is very different. I feel like it’s been forever, like something happened that day or something broke, and time slowed down, and it still hasn’t managed to pick up the pace it had before. When I think about it, I tell myself I shouldn’t feel this way. After all, I’m fine, nothing happened to me, and I didn’t lose anyone that day. But still, I know that, at least for me, nothing has been the same ever since, and the person I am today is very different from the person I was before the earthquake.


mexico city earthquake september 19th 2017 survivor experience 1

Source: AP


The person I am today thinks about death every day. I think about how lucky I am that I didn’t die that day, but I also think about the very real possibility of another earthquake happening in the future and not surviving that one. The person I am today is always aware of the nearest exit. I look out for structural damage in every single building I walk into, and I also think about where I could hide and take cover in case it starts shaking. The person I am today sleeps with the window open, so I can hear the seismic alarm more easily, and I always keep my keys and shoes by my bed, so I don’t waste any time, just in case.


I think it goes without saying that there’s some degree of trauma at work in all of this. I see it in myself as well as in most of the people I have talked to who lived to tell the tale of that day, already a year ago. The intensity of these feelings will fade away over time, I’m sure, but what I know won’t go anywhere is everything I’ve learned from it. The following lessons -for lack of a better word- are things I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.


mexico city earthquake september 19th 2017 survivor experience 2

Source: Notimex


1. There’s no way to see it coming.

Unlike a hurricane, where you know it’s coming days in advance, the earthquake alert in Mexico City gives you about a minute to get out of wherever you are and wait for it pass in a safe place. However, on September 19th, it didn’t work properly, so it only started ringing when the earthquake was already happening. There was no transition, no time between “just another Tuesday afternoon at work waiting for my lunch break” and “oh my God, everything is shaking, and I might die here.” On one hand, it feels surreal, like it’s impossible that this is really happening to you right now, but on the other hand, you realize that nothing this real had ever happened to you before because the possibility of death is so, so close.


2. It feels like forever.

The earthquake we experienced that day in Mexico City was 7.1 magnitude and lasted about a minute, but everything that happened and everything I felt during that minute made it feel much, much longer. A big part of it is the fear that something will fall on you or that the building will collapse under your feet, but there’s also the fact that you don’t fully comprehend what is going on. Feeling the earth shake under you, hearing the walls crack and groan next to you, and seeing everything move on its own goes against everything that you’ve gotten used to since the day you were born. It feels unnatural, and the only thing you can think as it’s happening is “please, make it stop.”


3. Your first thought after it’s over is “How is everyone else?”

There’s a running joke about how everyone calls their ex as soon as the earthquake is over, and sure, some people do take advantage of all the emotions running high to have an “excuse” to call their ex, but the reality behind the joke is that you really do worry about the people you care about being safe. As soon as you’re sure that it’s all over, the only thing on your mind is finding out how and where everyone else is. You also want nothing more than to be with them and hold them close. After such a stressful and terrifying experience, it’s only natural to feel this way.


4. It can feel like you survived the apocalypse.

In more than one way, the walk home from work that day was just as emotional and upsetting as the earthquake itself. Less than one hour after the event, I was walking (I didn’t have a car, and public transport wasn’t an option for most people) in a city where something horrible had just happened. Everywhere I looked people were crying, running to their loved ones, and talking to strangers, trying to make sense of what had happened, with the same look of shock and disbelief I probably had on my face too. We were alive, but we had no idea what had really happened and what was the extent of the tragedy. On top of that, there was no network or internet, so we couldn’t just google the news. We were in the dark, unable to know or see anything beyond the street where we were standing at that moment. The only thing to do was to try and find our loved ones, and help where we could.


mexico city earthquake september 19th 2017 survivor experience 3

Source: Reporte Indigo


5. People can die from one second to the next.

Yes, I know, I should’ve known that people could die unexpectedly before the earthquake happened, but I’d never been in a situation where so many people died at the same time so suddenly, and to this day, it’s still hard for me to think about it. On one hand, it hurts to think about all the people whose lives were cut short that day for no other reason than because they weren’t lucky enough to get out of their building safely or to get rescued in time. And on the other hand, it also hurts to think that it very well could’ve been you that day, and that there’s no real reason why you’re still alive, and those other people aren’t. Living with the knowledge of just how random an earthquake can be, and how close we are to death every single moment of every day definitely changes how you see things.


6. You’ll grieve for everyone who died, whether you knew one of them or not. You’ll grieve for the city in general, for everything that was lost that day and that we’ll never get back. And along with you, the whole city will grieve together, collectively, so that loss and sadness are felt everywhere you go. You might even feel survivor’s guilt.



mexico city earthquake september 19th 2017 survivor experience 4


7. Everyone has a different way of processing what happened.

Some people need to be alone for a while, whereas others can’t stand to be by themselves for too long and need company in order to cope. Some people want to talk about what happened all the time, while others would rather distract themselves with anything that lets them forget about it for a bit. The way we process the events and the trauma depend a lot on our personality and how much we were affected. In my case, in the year since the earthquake, I’ve gone through several different stages: hours after the earthquake, all I wanted to do was to walk around and talk about what happened; the days after that, I helped in any way I could wherever help was needed; and in the following months, I couldn’t even get close to the places where buildings had collapsed because it hurt too much to think about the people who died there. These days, I’m doing much better, but I really don’t think I’ll ever be fully okay again.


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A tragedy like this marks a before and after. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t lose anything in the earthquake; I was very, very lucky that day. However, a shift happened, and things just aren’t the same anymore. In the simplest of terms, the combination of experience and knowledge that the earthquake gave me (and all of us in the city) has forced me to change the way I see things and, in more than one way, grow.


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Here are other related articles you should check out:


"We Are Under The Rubble": Rod, From Accountant To Brigade Member

12 Powerful Images From The Moments After An Earthquake Shook Mexico City

Images Of The Solidarity and Unity Of The Rescue Teams In The Aftermath Of Mexico's 9/19 Earthquake

The Voices of An Earthquake: Alma, The Survivor Who Made It Out Of The Rubble

Zoralis Pérez

Zoralis Pérez


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