by Ana Campoy / September 20, 2017

“The earthquake that hit central Mexico September 19 summoned terrifying flashbacks of the massive destruction wrought by the most deadly tremor to shake the country’s capital, 32 years ago to the day. It also awakened the same spirit of solidarity in ordinary citizens that carried Mexico City through the first days after the 1985 quake, an 8.1-magnitude monster that killed thousands and crushed entire blocks. At that time, residents had to rely on one another for rescue because paralyzed authorities struggled to respond.

This time, civilians again sprung into action as soon as the ground stopped shaking. Neighbors started collecting broken pieces of concrete in buckets; pedestrians took up the job of directing traffic. Less than 24 hours later, Mexicans had erected an expansive recovery operation working to fill every conceivable gap in the official structure.

Battery brigades are being deployed to charge the dying cell phones of rescue workers. Engineers and architects are assessing battered buildings for safety; veterinarians are volunteering to help wounded animals. Twitter posts specify exactly what supplies are needed where. The hive mind has kicked in again, its power now multiplied by technology and social media. At the ground level, the response is surprisingly familiar.

“1985: Human chains”

After both earthquakes, lines of citizens formed next to collapsed buildings to clear broken pieces of buildings covering victims. Here are some in action, in 2017:

A raised hand is enough to silence the din of recovery work. It’s the sign emergency workers use when they need to strain their ears to hear whether there’s life under the rubble.

“1985: Drivers in Mexico City push their cars during rush hour to avoid disturbing rescue workers listening for trapped victims in damaged buildings.”

“2017: First responders raise their hands, asking for silence.”

One of the biggest questions that reverberates in the hours and days after an earthquake is “Are my loved ones OK?” Today, social networks are playing a big role in answering that question. In some cases, though, marker and paper is still the most efficient way.

“1985: Survivors gather around a grim list with the names of victims who were found.”

Similar records are popping up next to the ruins of buildings toppled by the latest quake.

Everyone has to eat. In an emergency, that means rescue workers, both official and volunteer, displaced families, and victims. Citizens are taking over that task in 2017 as they did in 1985.

“1985: Feeding the homeless and displaced after the earthquake in Mexico City.”

“2017: A mountain of donated food and water materialized in a Mexico City neighborhood less than 24 hours after the earthquake.”

In the face of widespread disaster, it’s necessary to quash despair in order to get the job done—at least temporarily. Below, a couple of examples of how Mexicans did it three decades ago and how they are doing it today.

“1985: “Tepito is united” read a banner hung by residents of a tough Mexico City barrio. Next to it, an attempt at humor: “This corner is not longer for sale, it is being given away.”

A few hours after the 2017 quake, a group of Mexico City dwellers burst into a chorus of traditional song Cielito Lindo. The refrain: Sing and don’t cry.

That kind of camaraderie is not usually on display in Mexico’s biggest city, whose residents have a reputation for being jaded. There is some hope that the feeling will last long after the earthquake that unleashed it, as it did in 1985.

The spontaneous cooperation that emerged in the hours and days following that disaster led to long-term civil organizing and political activism that eventually helped topple Mexico’s seven-decade, one-party rule in 2000. “A week ago we were talking about how the quake in ’85 woke up Mexicans to the rot,” tweeted one commentator. “Today, that solidarity is coming back.” And just as in 1985, Mexico’s political system, hobbled by corruption, is in need of a serious shake-up.”

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