By Gretchen Peters, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
MEXICO CITY - 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.
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.
"The aftershocks can be just as damaging as the quake," says shoe-shiner Francisco Montabol, practically quoting a government pamphlet handed out widely to Mexico City residents. "Go back inside and get trapped? Forget about it."
In the hours after Tuesday's quake was registered at the US Geological Survey in Golden, Colo., which monitors seismic activity worldwide, scientists were predicting heavy casualties and damage from the powerful temblor.
But by morning Wednesday, power and telephones had been restored across the city, and rescue teams had responded to more than 60 calls at buildings which suffered quake damage.
Waverly Person, a senior geophysicist at the USGS, attributes Mexico City's quake preparedness to the capital's nearly clean escape. "We are not seeing nearly as much damage in Mexico City as we saw before," he says. "Certainly they are more aware now ... and more conscious."
Yet the earthquake did kill more than two dozen people and injured hundreds in the impoverished Pacific Coast states of Colima and Jalisco, near the offshore epicenter. Most of those who died were crushed or suffocated when buildings collapsed, and the death toll is expected to rise in the coming days.
President Vicente Fox immediately ordered the military to search for damage near the quake's epicenter, declared five communities a federal disaster area, and opened an account for the public to make contributions toward rebuilding.
Visiting Colima Wednesday afternoon, he responded to anguished calls from residents pleading for help, and indicated he hoped to prepare their communities for future quakes the way Mexico City has.
"We are going to help with the rebuilding. Don't worry. Count on it," Fox said, adding that new structures would be more resistant to seismic activity than the old adobe structures that crumbled when the quake hit.
The states of Colima, Jalisco, and Guerrero sit atop a junction of three tectonic plates, all of which are active.
Yet seismic activity has so plagued Mexico since earliest recorded history that some speculate that people here will continue to run screaming from their homes whenever the ground shakes, despite efforts by authorities to protect them better.
"We have an utter terror of quakes in Mexico. It's ingrained in our culture and history," says columnist Guadalupe Loaeza. "And everyone here knows that at the end of the day, there is no way to protect against them entirely - no matter what technology exists."