Cleaning up from the quake, Mexico continues search for survivors and answers

World

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we reported earlier, the death toll in Tuesday's earthquake in Mexico neared 300 today, as rain hampered rescue efforts in the capital, Mexico City.

In a moment, William Brangham will have a look at how the city has sought to harden itself since the last big quake in 1985.

But, first, William joins me again tonight from Mexico City.

So, William, what can you tell me about the rescue efforts of people who reportedly are supposed to be trapped in that office building behind where you are?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Yes, Judy, it is a really extraordinary story that has given people here a lot of hope.

Using a whole series of very high-tech technology, thermal cameras, motion detectors, apparently, even an Israeli piece of equipment and an Israeli team that was able to zero in on cell phones, they believe that they have found six, at least six people in that office building behind me that are trapped there. And they are all believed to still be alive.

The family members of the missing are camped out just a few yards away from over this way. They have been told, and they are telling the press that food and water has been able to be sent to the people that are trapped there. But efforts are under way right now to try to get them out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I know that finding out they're there is one thing, but getting them out in time is something else altogether. What are you hearing about the prospects?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, that's absolutely right. It's obviously a race against time.

Rescuers have said that they think that they have got nine different access points that they can use to access where they are. And so they are slowly working their way into it.

The tricky part is, is that's a very fragile building behind me. And, as you can see, unlike a lot of the other sites that we visited here, it's not swarming with people. It's just a few people up there, because they're worried about collapsing the structure.

But the idea is, if they can get through one of these access points, they might be able to reach those people inside.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, William, this is still an active rescue site, but I understand, at a number of other sites, they have stopped the searching.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Yes, that's right.

The Mexican president today said that of the 38 sites that used to be rescue operations, only 10 of them remain active rescue operations.

And there is one other larger concern that's been going on here, which is not just for the buildings that have been collapsed, but what to do with the thousands of other buildings across Mexico City that are damaged.

While most of the attention remains on search-and-rescue across the city, there are an untold number of victims like Silvia Barroso.

SILVIA BARROSO, Resident (through interpreter): I was in the house doing chores when it started shaking. It was really, really strong.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Her apartment wasn't destroyed by Tuesday's quake, but she's been told it's too dangerous to go back and could crumble at any minute. So, she now lives here with what soaking belongings she could grab in this leaky shelter inside this vast makeshift community response center.

SILVIA BARROSO (through interpreter): We're feeling desperate. We really can't go anywhere. We don't have money to rent a new place. Everything has gotten wet from the rain here. There are tons of people coming and going.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There are likely thousands and thousands of people like Barroso.

The government estimates that at least 2,500 buildings were damaged on Tuesday, and they have received reports of 4,000 others. These are buildings that weren't flattened, but will likely remain uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.

Mexico City, of course, is no stranger to big earthquakes. The worst quake was in 1985, 32 years ago to the day of Tuesday's quake. Mexico City was terribly damaged. Thousands of buildings, including many newer ones, collapsed fully.

The official 5,000-person death toll is considered a gross underestimate. After the '85 quake, government officials said reforms would come: better rescue and response, better public education, and stronger, enforceable building requirements.

Daniel Rodriguez Velazquez has consulted the Mexican government's disaster prevention board. He's an expert in urban planning, and he says many of those reforms did in fact come.

DANIEL RODRIGUEZ VELAZQUEZ, National Autonomous University, Mexico (through interpreter): Before 1985, building standards didn't consider such large earthquakes. That's been an important change, the stronger building standards for the city.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Many point to the fact that Mexico City largely survived intact from Tuesday's quake. Yes, 45 buildings collapsed entirely, but the vast majority of this sprawling city of over 20 million remains untouched.

In fact, on most blocks, it's hard to even tell there was an earthquake at all. Daniel Rodriguez agrees those post-1985 reforms did save lives and saved structures. But he worries that, in the rush to cleanup, the lessons of why some buildings failed will be lost.

DANIEL RODRIGUEZ VELAZQUEZ (through interpreter): We need to see if the buildings that fell met construction standards. There's suspicion that many buildings were built through corruption to bring investment and generate the image of a modern city.

We need to have the scientific and technical information to be able to determine the causes of collapses, and, when applicable, criminal responsibility.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In fact, just a few blocks away, Rodriguez showed us what he's concerned about. Four families lived in what was a five-story apartment building here. It looked like this on Tuesday, and now it's being completely demolished. People here said no investigation had been done.

Javier Morales Acosta lived here with his wife, daughter, and grandson. He was at work when the quake struck.

JAVIER MORALES ACOSTA, Resident (through interpreter): My first thought was of my wife and family. My wife was at home. I tried to call, but she didn't answer, so I knew something had happened.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: His wife was injured, but got out alive. She's at the hospital now. He says they have lost absolutely everything.

JAVIER MORALES ACOSTA (through interpreter): We haven't been able to recover anything. When something like this happens, the first thing people ask you for is I.D., but everything we had is buried.

DANIEL RODRIGUEZ VELAZQUEZ (through interpreter): There is a rush to bring in heavy machinery and clean up the rubble, to demolish buildings. Just like in 1985, it's a political move. The government is in rush because a presidential election cycle is just starting.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Morales' house and all his family's belongings are being carted away in an afternoon, as officials here face the competing demands of trying to learn from this disaster vs. cleaning up and getting back to normal.

In Mexico City, I'm William Brangham for the PBS NewsHour.

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