On Shaky Grounds

The unwarranted demolition of houses after an earthquake in Mexico

01 January 2018
At stake in the reconstruction of homes damaged by the quake in Mexico is something more than roofs over heads. Some architects, engineers and residents are attempting to organise community-driven reconstruction efforts.
rebecca blackwell / ap photo
At stake in the reconstruction of homes damaged by the quake in Mexico is something more than roofs over heads. Some architects, engineers and residents are attempting to organise community-driven reconstruction efforts.
rebecca blackwell / ap photo

“Look, it’s what we’re seeing in the majority of houses,” the architect Melanie De Gyves told Edgardo Jimenez Santiago, a 30-year-old psychologist, as they stood in his house on a hot Sunday morning in mid September, ten days after an earthquake had struck off the coast of southern Mexico. “Everything looks dramatic. The lime plaster, the finishing, everything everywhere has fissures.” The turquoise walls of Santiago’s house showed cracks, and chunks of finishing had fallen off, exposing the brick beneath. All the internal walls, separating three rooms, had partially collapsed. The floor was covered in debris.

Santiago’s home in Ixtepec, a small city in the southern state of Oaxaca, was one of thousands damaged by the quake on 7 September, which measured 8.2 in magnitude, making it the strongest the country had seen in over a century. An official census carried out by federal and state government agencies just after the quake recorded 121,701 damaged homes in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. In Oaxaca, the damage was concentrated in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the thin waist of the country, separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Pacific Ocean by around 200 kilometres. The regional hub of Juchitán de Zaragoza was devastated, as were fishing villages on the coast and hamlets in the coffee-growing hills to the north. Ixtepec was not as badly affected. Even so, of the roughly 7,900 homes in the municipality, 4,130 were found by the census to have suffered damage.

Noe Hernández Reyna, the municipal secretary of Ixtepec, told me in October that damaged homes had been sorted into three categories: those that had suffered partial damage but were habitable, those with partial damage that were uninhabitable, and those that had suffered perdida total, or total loss. About 600 homes had been marked for demolition. De Gyves—who is part of a loose coalition of architects, engineers and volunteers working to organise the reconstruction of the community in keeping with regional architectural traditions—believes that in the majority of cases, demolition would be unwarranted. Often, the damage to homes was superficial or remediable. That so many homes had been marked uninhabitable was, according to her, because the people assigned to evaluate them for the census were either unfamiliar with traditional architecture or unsuited to their task. Perhaps more importantly, they did not have a high estimation of traditional homes.

Devika Bakshi is an independent journalist and radio producer. She has previously worked with NPR, CatchNews and Open magazine, and written for the Indian Express, Mint and The Hindu.

Keywords: earthquake architecture Mexico Housing
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