Quake Effects in City a Study in Contrasts

Times Staff Writer

Wearing business suits and carrying briefcases, thousands of office workers tried to return to their jobs Monday, only to be left standing on the sidewalk while inspectors examined the cracks in the rattled buildings where they once worked.

Cabdrivers swarmed through the streets for the first time since last Thursday’s earthquake to find that they had to find their way around a maze of blockades.

And throughout the capital, shopkeepers reopened their doors, uncertain whether they would have any customers to greet.

In fits and starts, Mexico City hobbled back toward normal Monday as the official period of mourning ended for the thousands who died, were injured or lost their homes in the earthquake.


“Life has to continue,” said Reina Zagal, a clerk at the Sears department store that was open but nearly empty in the hard-hit Colonia Roma neighborhood.

The damage from Thursday’s earthquake was concentrated in the downtown area of this sprawling metropolis of 18 million people. So, for many residents on the outskirts, the earthquake, after the initial fright, was not a tragedy of personal loss and grief.

“I feel that 70% of the city is unharmed, the people are unhurt and the property is not damaged,” said Leonor Rivera, an administrator at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “In my house, we have not been affected. We are living normally, we have water, electricity, transportation and, since yesterday, telephone service.”

But even in the unharmed, outlying districts, many residents had to adjust Monday to traffic jams, disorganization and limited government services. Also, 50,000 volunteers from every section of the capital were working round-the-clock in the afflicted areas, helping in the effort to rescue the living and recover the dead.

For Alberto de la Cajiga Watson, 29, sitting in a blue suit outside a southern district hall, the quake meant postponing his wedding until a justice of the peace returned to work.

“If it weren’t for the earthquake, we would have been married Friday,” said De la Cajiga, his family and bride-to-be standing by his side.

San Angel, a wealthy neighborhood with cobblestone streets, bougainvillea-covered walls and satellite dishes on the roofs, was unharmed by the earthquake. But still the district halls were full of donated clothes and medicines. Signs were pasted in front asking for donations of oxygen, battery-powered lights and vaccines.

Store’s Sales Down

Catalina Ortiz, a 17-year-old salesgirl at the Navarra hardware store there, said the only noticeable effect of the earthquake there was that sales were down.

“I feel the earthquake, but from afar,” Ortiz said.

Around the corner, the marketplace was full of flowers, tropical fruit and shoppers, many of them exchanging stories of their experiences during the earthquakes Thursday and Friday.

For Moises and Raul Fuentes Mendoza, the earthquake has never been any closer than their television set. The brothers, who live and work on the southern edge of the capital, suffered no losses in the quake and have not seen the damage directly.

“The south of the city is all calm. The problem is in the center, and we have only seen that on television,” said Moises Fuentes.

“There’s no reason for us to go and get in their way. They need machinery, not people there,” said Raul Fuentes.

Nonetheless, the two were left standing outside the library at the National Autonomous University. They had been told to report to work, but were unable to enter the building until it was declared safe.

Schools Still Closed

While schools will remain closed until Wednesday, liquor stores resumed the sale of alcohol Monday, and movie houses, sports centers and other entertainment centers were expected to reopen.

The city’s subway lines were functioning at all but a few damaged stops. Subways and buses were packed as usual.

Electricity had been restored to about 80% of the city, but water service still was cut off in many more areas. Many of the northern, central and southeastern neighborhoods were without running water, so residents collected it in buckets from city trucks.

Authorities were warning everyone to boil their water. Water was a major concern because officials said they did not expect service to be restored for weeks to many parts of the city.

Department stores, neighborhood markets, banks and shopping centers were functioning normally in most parts of the capital, surrounded by congestion and traffic gridlocks.

In the downtown Zona Rosa tourist area, art galleries and boutiques were open, although next to them several hotels were crumbling and had been evacuated.

Some Tourists Stayed

Tourists were few and far between, but some remained.

“I try to be an optimist that this will not happen again,” said Walburfa Schroeter, 29, of West Germany. “I feel I am almost safe where I am staying now.”

Geri Haas, of Atlanta, who rushed to Mexico City last Friday to search for her husband after the quake, said she found him and discovered that the capital is in much better condition than she expected.