Preparing for the Next Earthquake

Deadly earthquakes have struck Japan, China, New Zealand, Haiti and Chile in recent months, causing tremendous loss of life and devastating entire cities and regions. This week, I joined other urban leaders from around the world at a United Nations conference in Geneva to discuss how cities can better prepare for natural disasters and reduce the risk to human life and property.

I brought to this discussion my experience in rebuilding areas of Mexico City in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that hit us in September, 1985. That tragedy killed 10,000 of my fellow citizens, injured 30,000, and leveled entire neighborhoods. It led not only to rebuilding our city but to putting in place reforms to enable us to be better prepared for future earthquakes. Today, Mexico City has developed a series of initiatives to better enable both Mexico City's government and our 20 million citizens to respond quickly to a deadly earthquake.

Here is an overview of Mexico City's comprehensive earthquake strategy:

Risk mapping: We undertake extensive risk mapping to identify high-risk areas of damage resulting from an earthquake, using historical data to more accurately predict future danger zones and in determining real estate and development considerations.

Early warning system: We have developed the world's first earthquake warning system, known as Sistema de Alerta Sísmica. The system is capable of generating warning signals of an average of 60 seconds before the "S" waves first arrival in Mexico City by detecting strong earthquakes occurring 280 km. away in the "Guerrero Gap" along Mexico's Pacific coast. Since August 1991, the system has detected 656 seismic events along the Guerrero Coast; nine strong enough to trigger early warning signals in Mexico City.

Emergency personnel: We have a highly-trained, world-class disaster rescue team, known as Los Topos (The Moles), which has offered its expertise in rescue efforts around the world, including during recent tragedies in Haiti and Japan.

Schools: Mexico City's Department of Civil Protection conducts earthquake drills in all Mexico City schools.

Construction: Public and private buildings in Mexico City are required to be part of the city's civil defense program. We conduct structural reviews, gas and electricity installation reviews, and identify assembly points and evacuation routes. There are strict building requirements and inspection procedures during construction, and earthquake-resistant engineering is utilized in new construction. Mexico City has also created the Institute for Structural Security, which is responsible for providing recommendations on new construction.

Training: Last year, we began training 10,000 civil servants who would play a critical role during a disaster. Training involves four groups: [1] member of the Cabinet and senior government officials, [2] service providers, including hospital workers, electricity and water officials, [3] rescue workers, and [4] educators.

Public drills: Mexico City conducts regular earthquake drills, the largest of which takes place annually on September 18, anniversary of the 1985 quake. Last September, more than six million citizens participated in a drill that involved 13,000 public and private buildings and 12,000 law enforcement and emergency personnel. It was an extraordinary demonstration of government and citizen collaboration. The drills educate citizens on evacuation routes and response plans. When people know what action to take, the cost in human lives can be dramatically reduced. These drills also enable us to measure our response capacity and identify high-risk locations through GIS-data technology.

Security cameras: Mexico City is installing a network of 8,000 video cameras in high-traffic locations throughout the city. The system is integrated with command, control and communications centers. It is the most comprehensive and modern video monitoring system in the world. Each video unit includes a loudspeaker for use during emergencies. While the system is used daily to monitor and respond to criminal activity, it will be an essential communications tool during a time of crisis. We have invested USD 800 million in this initiative.

New technologies: Finally, we are developing a program to send earthquake warnings directly to citizens through their mobile phones, a warning reaching them seconds before an earthquake hits. The technology will be place within the next few months. Providing a warning directly to citizens -- even just a few seconds before an earthquake strikes -- can save many lives. We are also using social media tools such as Twitter to communicate directly to citizens in real time.

Through these critical investments, training and public education, our goal has been to make Mexico City the most prepared megacity in the world for such a disaster.