Mexico is no stranger to natural disasters. We get a lot of them each year! My country is beautiful, but we are always sitting on the brink of destruction. Mexico has thousands of miles of coastline, so of course we get at least one strong hurricane a year. The country is also home to several active volcanoes and there are earthquakes almost everyday. On top of it all, tornadoes sometimes make their appearance in the north. Even a record-breaking hurricane is not new for us!
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In 2015, the strongest storm ever recorded, Hurricane Patricia, pounded Mexico’s Pacific coast and threatened the country with catastrophe. Fortunately, federal and local governments took safety and prevention measures to keep the population safe and damage to the minimum. The Mexican people know exactly what to do in the event of a massive storm, but that’s something we have learned the hard way.
I have compiled a list of some of the worst natural disasters in Mexico in recent memory. I have to warn you, it’s terrifying! Some of them make Patricia seem tame by comparison.
Mexico City earthquake, 1985
This was possibly the deadliest natural disaster ever. On September 19, 1985, the earth shook and Mexico changed forever.
The quake was 8.1 on the Richter scale and lasted an entire two minutes. It struck at 7:19 in the morning, so it caught the population at unawares. Hundreds of buildings collapsed after the first minute, and thousands of people were buried in the rubble. Many of those were office and apartment buildings, so to this day the total number of casualties is unknown- 10,000? 40,000? 100,000? Who knows? In the aftermath, the government was unable to cope with the emergency and people had to dig their loved ones out of the rubble with their own bare hands. There were so many bodies, the baseball stadium overflowed with them. It was a nightmare scenario.
The consequences of the earthquake were enormous. It weakened the ruling political party’s grip on power, which had remained unchallenged for decades. It gave the people a sense of power in the face of tragedy. It spawned safety and prevention codes, which had not existed before. It also bred a generation of civilian heroes, like the Topos rescue brigade, which has rushed to aid the victims of every major earthquake in the world since then.
The Mexico City earthquake still fuels collective nightmares, and it is still remembered vividly by the city’s residents. Every year, on the anniversary of the quake, the Mexican flag is flown at half-mast, the President observes a minute of silence for the victims, and all the schools and offices carry out a massive earthquake drill. After all, we all know another big one could strike at any moment!
The birth of the Paricutin volcano, 1943
Paricutin was a small, quiet, ordinary village in the province of Michoacan when disaster struck. On February 20, 1943, a humble farmer was working his field when suddenly the ground shook, the earth opened, and there was an explosion of rocks and gas. Just like that, out of the blue, a new volcano was born!
Over the next weeks and months, the volcano pushed its way out of the earth, spewing rocks, hot gas, and lava. This phenomenon was so unique, that scientists from all over the world flocked to the village of Paricutin to watch the birth of the volcano. However, the local people were forced to leave their homes and fields behind when the lava flow targeted their village. The lava swallowed two entire towns and a thousand people died. Only the church tower was saved from the destruction.
The Paricutin volcano is the youngest in the world. It is still active and growing. The ground around it is hot, steamy and covered with sulphur deposits. The town was also completely rebuilt several miles from its original location, and nowadays, you can visit it and then take a hike to the base of the volcano. Doesn’t that sound like an adventure?
Chichonal eruption, 1982
The Chichonal volcano, in the southern province of Chiapas, erupted on March 28, 1982, in the middle of the night. The explosion was so violent, it blew the top off the mountain and covered the entire southeast of the country in a layer of ashes. It blew ten times more ashes and gas than Mount St. Helens, and the cloud traveled across the globe, lowering the world’s temperatures for the next two years.
For the locals, it was the end of the world. The volcano blew a Pliny eruption, with pyroclastic flows of lava and gas. These killed thousands of people and displaced many more, most of them members of local indigenous tribes. To this day, the exact number of victims remains unknown.
Now, more than 30 years after the explosion, the province of Chiapas has fully recovered. The volcano is quiet, and the area is a lush forest once again. Mexicans have an amazing capacity for rebuilding, almost as much as nature!
Tabasco flood, 2007
In case you didn’t know, Tabasco is not only a kind of hot sauce but also a province in southeastern Mexico. In October 2007, Tabasco was hit by several consecutive storms and torrential rains overflowed all the major rivers. The water level rose so high, that one of the country’s largest dams came to the brink of bursting. The heavy rains, along with the downloading of the dam, flooded almost the entire province.
The capital of Tabasco, Villahermosa, is a city built on top of a swamp and protected by levees, which were unable to stop the flood. On October 27, almost the entire city went underwater, and more than a million people were displaced. The province was practically cut off from the world, as highways collapsed and the lack of landing spaces made air lifts almost impossible.
Worse, the ground all over Tabasco was so soaked in water, that entire hills turned to mud. In fact, a whole town was buried in a massive landslide. In November, it finally stopped raining, but the face of Tabasco was not the same, literally. Rivers had changed course, towns had disappeared, and many people had lost their homes and their lives. This was one of the costliest disasters in Mexican history.
Today, Tabasco province and the city of Villahermosa are all back to business as usual. The town that was buried in a landslide was rebuilt on higher ground and is the first sustainable rural community in the country. Amazing, right?
The hurricane of 1959
Over the course of the years, Mexico has known quite a few destructive hurricanes: Gilbert in 1988, Pauline in 1997, Wilma in 2005, and Patricia in 2015, just to name a few. However, the deadliest one happened in 1959. It became the deadliest eastern Pacific tropical storm on record.
On October 29, 1959, the monster hurricane made landfall near Manzanillo at category 5. People were caught unprepared because back then, hardly any safety measures were normally taken. The effects were catastrophic! About 1,800 people died, 150 fishing vessels sank, and a quarter of all homes were destroyed. Roads also collapsed, isolating many towns and cities, and field crops and plantations were blown away. There were mudslides, which buried many victims and homes, and also uncovered thousand of venomous snakes and scorpions. It was hell on earth.
With time, the region recovered and is now home to some of Mexico’s most important tourist resorts.
Now, 56 years later, that very same region has suffered a blow by another category 5 hurricane. The good news is that things are different now. People and local governments are prepared. Those in vulnerable spots were evacuated, and the army, the navy, the federal police, and the local governments all took emergency measures. No one was caught unprepared this time!
That doesn’t mean Hurrican Patricia was harmless. It destroyed homes, schools, fields, plantations, and stretches of road. The Mexican people will rebuild, of course, but it won’t be easy and any aid will be welcome.
Mexico is a strong country, with brave and resourceful people. I am sure we will pull through any disaster that destiny throws our way. Mexican people are generous, and we’ll be sure to gather emergency supplies to send to those affected by any natural disaster. Viva Mexico!