Well over 300 aftershocks have been reported across Mexico following Mexico’s strongest earthquake in a century. The magnitude 8.2 earthquake hit the Pacific coast around midnight, just a few miles out from Pijijiapan, Chiapas—a southern Mexican city roughly 100 miles from the border between Mexico and Guatemala.
The death toll is expected to be high. As of Friday afternoon, 58 people have been confirmed killed, including children.
The initial tremors reverberated far and wide, as far as Mexico City, and were felt by as many as 50 million people, but the massive quake hit hardest in Mexico’s most impoverished southern states, Oaxaca and Chiapas—the state that birthed the Zapatista uprising of the mid-’90s, when a revolutionary, largely indigenous, guerrilla army waged war against the Mexican State. The final death toll from the quake will likely not be known for days, as the damage is surveyed, and aftershocks continue.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a series of alerts this Friday as they evaluated the possibility of walls of water affecting the region. “Tsunami waves reaching more than three meters above the tide level are possible along some coasts of Mexico,” an alert issued read an alert issued Friday afternoon, adding “tsunami waves have been observed.”
Hundreds of aftershocks, some above 6 points on the Richter scale, have rattled the affected areas and are expected to continue and cause further damage.
In Mexico City, where roughly 13,000 people died in a 1985 earthquake that caused destruction that took years to recover from, earthquake sirens blared through the night but damage was minimal and no deaths have been reported there thus far.
One reporter stoically remained seated during a live broadcast, as colorful earthquake lights illuminated the skyline.
But the least fortunate in Mexico were among the most severely impacted by the earthquake, which could produce its own political aftershocks as states already facing massive inequality and poverty spend upcoming months or even years dealing with the damage.
In Juchitán, Oaxaca, at least 17 have been confirmed dead as buildings collapsed into rubble, and three people remain trapped under debris. The city’s town hall, once a stately building compared to its surroundings, was leveled by the quake. There, one man rescued the building’s Mexican flag, and placed it atop the rubble.
The image of the flag waving in a scene comparable to a war zone reverberated in Mexico, and #PrayForMexico become the top global trend on Twitter as the world reacted to the earthquake, a catastrophe that struck even as Hurricane Irma raged across the Caribbean and onward toward the United States.
Relief efforts are now under way in Mexico and the true impact of the quake is still being assessed, but already it’s apparent that thousands will face seemingly insurmountable challenges while hoping to recover what little they had.
In Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, more than 76 percent of the population live in poverty. In Oaxaca, it’s two out of every three people. Just in these two states there are more than 6.5 million impoverished Mexicans, and roughly 3 million already living in extreme poverty—before the devastating earthquake struck.
The quake left nearly 2 million Mexicans without electricity, and hundreds more saw their homes destroyed.
According to Chiapas State Senator Zoe Robledo, who spoke to The Daily Beast from Tuxtla Gutierrez, his main priority now will be arranging medical attention for the injured, and attending to the families of the deceased, but next comes assisting the newly homeless. “We don’t have final numbers yet, but considering the size of the impacted areas, we could be looking at more than 10,000 people facing crisis,” he said. “When disaster strikes where poverty is prevalent the impact is exponential. It makes reconstruction and seeking aid less possible.”
“We are already a vulnerable state for natural disasters—hurricanes, tsunami risks, rising tides—and typically the last thing that is dealt with is the resulting homelessness,” he said. “We are asking the federal government for support… if we don’t get meaningful help we’ll be in serious trouble.”
The senator, who is currently seeking the governorship of the state under the umbrella of the left-leaning Morena party, said he is coordinating with international organizations to seek support, as he works to assist the shelters and set up aid centers.
“Inequality has historically been the biggest problem for the state. There are people who are used to walking two hours to reach drinking water,” he said. As a candidate, he said, he’s hoping to prioritize this historic state-wide problem.
“There is generally a terrible link between poverty and corruption. And worse, there is a history of conditioning social aid on political support, incorporating people into social programs in exchange for them voting a certain way. It would be tragic to see someone use this situation for political gain, but often optimism is thwarted by personal experience,” he said. “But I’m choosing to be optimistic until I’m given a reason to believe otherwise.”
But so far Mexicans have shown solidarity with one another and a charitable spirit. They’ll need it, as aftershocks continue to reverberate through southern Mexico, and Hurricane Katia—a Category 2, so far—is expected to gain speed before hitting the Mexican coast this Saturday, just north of the most devastated region of Mexico.
It will be the third Atlantic hurricane expected to make landfall this week, and couldn’t come at a worse time.