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Preparation saves lives in Mexican earthquake

After deadly 1985 quake, Mexico City officials educated public and trained workers.

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A major earthquake that struck Mexico Tuesday night could have been much worse. But authorities here credit a program initiated after a devastating 1985 temblor with saving thousands of lives over the past 15 years - including possibly many this week.

Though 25 people were killed in western coastal states near where the 7.8-magnitude epicenter was located, there was nowhere near the devastation 18 years ago from the 8.1-magnitude quake that killed 10,000. None of Mexico City's 18 million residents perished, and damage in the capital was minimal.

"Back in 1985, the city government did not have a ready response for a major earthquake - and it was totally overwhelmed," says Cesar Buenrostro, Mexico City's director of public works. "Since then, we have used experience to prepare ourselves."

Millions of dollars have been spent to reinforce centuries-old structures across the city, and any new construction must comply with strict quake protection measures.

Teams of rescue workers, police, hospital staff, and firemen practice earthquake simulations throughout the year so they can respond immediately.

City workers from the subway system to the power grid are assigned specific checklists they must work through the instant any seismic activity occurs.

They are understanding orders to repair any damage immediately, even in the event that telecommunications are down and they can not reach their superiors.

Meanwhile, a state-of-the-art alert system beams emergency messages to the capital every time major seismic activity is detected along coastal fault lines. Warning sirens then sound, giving city residents up to a minute's warning that a quake is coming.

Stand clear

Perhaps most important, massive public-awareness campaigns have trained Mexico City residents how to react when they hear the sirens: Get outside quickly and stand clear of any structure or power cables that could fall.

Luis Wintergerst Toledo, director of civil protection in Mexico City, says not a single life has been lost to earthquake damage here in more than 10 years.

"This city has literally become more stable," he says. "And people here know how to respond in a mature and responsible manner when a quake happens."

Thousands of residents refused to return to their homes after the Jan. 21 quake struck at about 8 p.m. local time. Many chose to spend the entire night shivering on the streets.

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