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Mexico mourns after quake: 'We have no idea how we are going to rebuild'

For those whose worst fears were confirmed, there were funerals, with processions haltingly making their way to cemeteries to the traditional sounds of Oaxaca's drums and trumpets

Pauline Villegas & Elisabeth Malkin  |  Asunción Ixtaltepec, Mexico 

Mexico earthquake
A man removes debris from a collapsed building felled by the earthquake in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico. Photo: AP | PTI

The death toll from Mexico’s strongest earthquake in living memory rose to 90 on Sunday, as the people of southern Oaxaca State mourned their dead and rescue workers began assessing the damage in small towns where dust still hung in the air.

The state of Oaxaca was hit the hardest, with 71 dead, said Águeda Robles, a spokeswoman for the state civil protection agency. Another 15 were reported to have died in Chiapas, the state to Oaxaca’s southeast, with four fatalities in neighboring Tabasco State.

More than two days after the quake struck late Thursday, violent aftershocks continued to jolt the largest city in the region, Juchitán de Zaragoza, and the surrounding towns on Sunday. In Asunción Ixtaltepec, about five miles away, search dogs clambered over rubble with their handlers on Sunday, looking for signs of life.

For those whose worst fears were confirmed, there were funerals, with processions haltingly making their way to cemeteries to the traditional sounds of Oaxaca’s drums and trumpets.

On Sunday morning, Lourdes Pérez buried the son she had frantically tried to save when the top floor of his house collapsed before her eyes. As she stood before the ruin of his house in the afternoon, the destruction mirrored her own devastation.

Ms. Pérez had been outside her own home, opposite the two-story house where her son, Eduardo Peralta, 33, lived with his young family, when the earthquake shook the ground beneath her.

The Peralta family were asleep upstairs when the quake struck. Eduardo grabbed his 6-year-old son, Esteban, and ran down. His wife, Sunihey Antonio, followed, clutching the couple’s 1-year-old daughter.

With the house rocking and pitching, Mr. Peralta reached the front door when a cement beam fell on his back, crushing his spine and neck, his mother said.

Ms. Pérez scrambled over the pieces of concrete, begging for help. “I cried like La Llorona: ‘Oh, my children!’” she said, referring to the Mexican folk tale of a woman who loses her children. “Please somebody give me a flashlight, a shovel, anything — I need to pull them out,” she cried out.

Ms. Antonio answered from the rubble, her baby daughter still in her arms. “We are here, we are alive!” she shouted. Neither was hurt.

“Are my children O.K.?” cried Mr. Peralta, trapped kneeling in the debris, his arms around Esteban.

Those would be his last words. Neighbors converged on the house to help Ms. Pérez free the family, but Mr. Peralta died a couple of hours later at the town’s clinic, which operated that night with no electricity.

Esteban, who was injured, was taken with his mother to the state capital, Oaxaca, where on Sunday he was operated on for a fractured hip. He had yet to be told that he has lost his father.

Like Ms. Pérez, the residents of Ixtaltepec, where 10 people died, had to manage on their own for the first day after the earthquake. Help was initially concentrated in Juchitán, a city of 100,000, because the need there was so great.

But every street of Ixtaltepec bore the mark of the quake’s destruction. And for those who had been spared the loss of loved ones, there was a scramble for food and water.

Hundreds crowded at a makeshift shelter set up on an outdoor dance floor covered by a roof of galvanized steel, grateful for the tamales, rice and beans that volunteers handed out. Elsewhere in the town, people served food from the back of cars and trucks.

“We have no idea how we are going to rebuild the entire town,” said María Luisa Matus, a state official coordinating efforts at the shelter, where rice, bottled water and toilet paper were stacked in piles. “But that is just very low on our list of priorities right now,” she said. She needed packages of food and other necessities for 3,000 families in Ixtaltepec.

And she had another worry as nightfall approached.

Residents had spent two nights outside, on the crumpled sidewalks outside their houses and in their backyard patios, or clustering in basketball courts and parking lots. “It’s going to rain tonight, so we need mattresses” for people to sleep in shelters, she said.

Even in Juchitán, officials had to improvise. Doctors and nurses made do in a small gymnasium as families of the injured pleaded for help.

The main regional hospital in Juchitán was destroyed in the earthquake, and the injured were slowly being transferred to other cities. For those who had not been moved, help was rudimentary.

There were shortages of antibiotics, anesthetics and sterilized medical equipment, said María Teresa Salas, a medical technician. She was waiting for a water truck and despaired that without electricity there was no way to take X-rays.

More than 30 brigades of local and state police and other officials were scheduled to fan out across Juchitán on Monday to begin clearing the wreckage of fallen buildings, said Oscar Cruz, the city’s municipal secretary. Many families are seeking help to tear down their uninhabitable houses.

“Rebuilding the city is going to take a very long time due to the magnitude and impact” of the quake, Mr. Cruz said in a telephone interview. Referring to Mexico’s last giant earthquake, he added, “Let’s just hope this won’t take 30 years, as it did back in 1985.”

As the terror of Thursday’s earthquake turned into the long ache of families that may never again feel whole, one funeral on Sunday stood out as an emblem of the city’s loss.

Municipal police officers mounted an honor guard for the funeral of Juan Jiménez, a policeman who was buried when a portion of City Hall collapsed. The city had seemed to hold its collective breath as rescue workers combed through the debris throughout Friday, only to pull out his body on Saturday.

Dozens of relatives and friends had filled the patio of his house to pay their respects to his wife, Irma, and the couple’s three boys during the night.

“God needed him,” said Wilhelm, 12, the youngest of the three, shaking dust from the navy blue blanket that covered his father’s coffin. “I think that my grandfather also wanted him near,” he said.

“That’s why he died.” 
©2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Wed, September 20 2017. 08:40 IST
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