Norma Soberanes was at a funeral, along with many of her neighbors in the village of Hueyapan, Morelos, 30 miles south of Mexico City, when last Tuesday’s earthquake struck.
As they lowered the body into the earth, the ground began to shake furiously. The chapel crumbled, sending stone and concrete flying. “Right there, by the church, that’s where we were hit hardest,” Soberanes remembers. “When the cupola fell, it crushed his body completely. Even I’m still here hurting here” – she ran her fingers over her left shoulder – “from where some concrete hit me as I ran.”
Soberanes’ house withstood the worst of the tremors, but the embroidery workshop where she had earned her living for the past 15 years collapsed, leaving her without a source of income for the foreseeable future. “I talk as though I’m really affected, but at least I have a place to sleep,” she said on the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 23, as she gathered personal care items for her family from a group of Direct Relief volunteers. “I don’t know how much more we can take, though. I’m here now just to get out of the house, just to go somewhere.”
That afternoon, and for the three previous days, Hueyapan and its surrounding villages, straddling the border that separates the states of Puebla and Morelos, were jammed with traffic. Cars and trucks carrying donations and volunteers threaded the narrow streets, winding past walls marked with the word PELIGRO, or DANGER; signs taped into their windshields announced their provenance – State of Mexico, Hidalgo, Puebla, Guanajuato – a map of solidarity radiating across the republic.
Direct Relief’s aid effort on Saturday, made in partnership with the CIDE (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, or Center for Research and Teaching in Economics), included ten vehicles and more than 30 volunteers who distributed nearly 450 individual hygiene kits to 13 towns and villages in heavily affected areas. Saturday’s efforts represent the first wave of aid that Direct Relief will continue channeling into the region in the coming weeks.
Hueyapan, where at least two dozen houses have been condemned, was relatively lucky. Down the hill in San Antonio Alponocan, just over the state line from Morelos into Puebla, some 90 percent of homes were damaged or destroyed.
As the sun descended Saturday evening, families along the sloping main street, crowded with dust-covered volunteers carrying pick-axes and shovels, gathered relief packages with profuse gratitude. Signs taped to condemned walls and held by grateful families on the roads into and out of town read, “Thank you for your support! May God bless you!”
Having gathered a set of Direct Relief aid packages for his family, Vicente Lima Rivera walked back through the intact façade of his six-year-old home. Inside, he stood in an open patio that was once his living room. A makeshift roof of corrugated metal that he and his brother built on Wednesday afternoon covered his furniture, protecting it from the impending rain.
“This is where the kitchen used to be. The volunteers have already cleaned it,” he said. “My mother was in here cooking when it happened. If my brother hadn’t been nearby to help her out, she would have died.” He gestured vaguely toward a flat square of concrete elevated above the ground. “We’ve felt earthquakes before, but nothing like this.”
According to Lima, a significant portion of the aid that his village has received thus far has come from private citizens, businesses, and organizations like Direct Relief. One little boy said that he’d met volunteers from as far away as Baja California, 1,500 miles to the northeast. One woman had come from the state of Guerrero with a truck full of hot food to distribute among residents and volunteers. Four years ago, she says, floods obliterated her home. Help had come from all sides. “As soon as I heard what had happened, I knew I needed to do something,” she said.
Lima says it will cost some 350,000 pesos (nearly $20,000) to rebuild the home he lost. The reconstruction process could take years. Endelia Balderas Perez, whose house in Hueyapan collapsed in the quake, says, “it’s not like we build our houses here in a month. We have to buy materials bit by bit and put them aside, so it can take a year to build just a simple casita.” Lima and his neighbors have been deeply moved by the amount of support they’ve seen thus far, but worry what will happen as the initial enthusiasm from private citizens wanes.
Late Saturday night, as the truckloads of volunteers in hard hats pulled out of town singing patriotic songs, Gelacio Sanchez Rojas sat under the broken lintel of his shop on one of Alponocan’s devastated side streets. A trio of engineers from Mexico City, Puebla, and Monterrey (far away in Mexico’s north) had inspected his store and told him it could be repaired.
“This is what God sends us,” he said with jarring equanimity. “Now maybe we can make our town better than it was before.”
– Michael Snyder is a journalist based in Mexico City.