MEXICO CITY — The most powerful earthquake to hit Mexico in 100 years struck off the nation’s Pacific Coast late Thursday
, rattling millions of residents in Mexico City with its violent tremors, claiming at least five lives and leveling some areas in the southern part of the country closest to where the quake occurred.
About 50 million people across the country felt the earthquake, which had a magnitude of 8.2, according to the Mexican government. The force sent residents of the megacity fleeing into the streets at midnight, shaken by the alarms blaring over loudspeakers and a full minute of tremors. Windows broke, walls collapsed, and the city seemed to convulse in terrifying waves; the quake even rocked the city’s landmark Angel of Independence monument.
And while the capital seems to have been spared any vast damage to infrastructure in the government’s preliminary assessment, the effects in the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca were probably more severe. The tally of damage — and death — will probably be difficult to assess initially, given how remote many areas of the states are.
But at least two women died in the state of Chiapas, and two children died in the state of Tabasco, one when a wall collapsed, the other after a respirator lost power. Local officials in Oaxaca have said residents of that state remain buried under the rubble of buildings that collapsed during the earthquake. The effects were also felt in Guatemala, where at least one person died and homes along the border with Mexico were leveled.
Schools in at least 10 Mexican states were ordered closed on Friday as the president ordered an immediate assessment of the damage nationwide. In the hours after the quake, the National Seismological Service registered several aftershocks.
Still, the resounding feeling in the country was one at least initially of relief that the damage was not more widespread, given the nation’s vulnerability to earthquakes and the capital’s extreme density.
“We are assessing the damage, which will probably take hours, if not days,” said President Enrique Peña Nieto, who addressed the nation just two hours after the quake. “But the population is safe over all. There should not be a major sense of panic.”
While Mexico is no stranger to earthquakes, situated as it is near several boundaries where portions of the earth’s crust collide, Thursday’s earthquake was more powerful than even the 1985 one that killed nearly 10,000 people.
But while Thursday’s quake occurred nearly 450 miles from the capital, off the coast of Chiapas State, the one in 1985 was much closer to the city — so the shaking, coupled with Mexico City being situated on an ancient lake bed, proved much more deadly back then.
After the 1985 disaster, construction codes were reviewed and stiffened. Today, Mexico’s construction laws are as strict as those in the United States or Japan.
After the quake hit, people in Mexico City streamed out of their homes just before midnight wearing nightclothes, standing amid the apartment buildings, cafes and bars in upscale neighborhoods and the dense warrens of the city’s working-class communities. In the neighborhood of Condesa, neighbors watched in awe as power lines swayed alongside trees and buildings. In several neighborhoods power was out, though it was restored within an hour, at least in the wealthier areas of the city.
For a city used to earthquakes, Thursday’s quake left a lasting impression on residents, for both its force and duration.
“The scariest part of it all is that if you are an adult and you’ve lived in this city your adult life you remember 1985 very vividly,” said Alberto Briseño, a 58 year-old bar manager in Condesa. “This felt as strong and as bad, but from what I see, we’ve been spared from major tragedy.”
“Now we will do what us Mexicans do so well: Take the bitter taste of this night and move on,” he added.
Thursday’s earthquake occurred near the Middle America Trench, a zone in the eastern Pacific where one slab of the earth’s crust, called the Cocos Plate, is sliding under another, the North American, in a process called subduction.
The movement is very slow — about three inches a year — and over time stresses build because of friction between the slabs. At some point the strain becomes so great that the rock breaks and slips along a fault. This releases vast amounts of energy and, if the slip occurs under the ocean, can move a lot of water suddenly, causing a tsunami.
Subduction zones ring the Pacific Ocean and are found in other regions as well. They are responsible for the world’s largest earthquakes and most devastating tsunamis. The magnitude 9 earthquake off Japan in 2011 that led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the magnitude 9.1 quake in Indonesia in 2004 that spawned tsunamis that killed a quarter of a million people around the Indian Ocean are recent examples.
Those quakes each released about 30 times as much energy as the one in Mexico.
Mexico’s government issued a tsunami warning off the coasts of Oaxaca and Chiapas after Thursday’s quake, but neither state appeared to have been adversely affected by waves in the aftermath. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said the largest wave recorded on Mexico’s Pacific Coast measured less than four feet.
In his address, Mr. Peña Nieto said that aftershocks were of greater concern than the waves generated by the earthquake, which he said was the strongest to hit the country in a century.
Rudy Gomez, 28, who lives in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, said that he spoke to his family in Chiapas by phone after the quake and that they were all fine. They were worried, however, about the aftershocks.
“After the earthquake, there were three more,” he said of the aftershocks in Chiapas. “They are just waiting to see if there is another one to come, but right now they are O.K.”
In the state of Oaxaca, the town of Juchitán appeared particularly hard-hit. In a video posted on the Facebook page of a local TV station, Pamela Terán, who introduced herself as a city councilor in the town, begged state and federal authorities for help.
“Please we urgently need as much help as you can send,” she said. “We need hands and manpower to try and dig out the people that we know are buried under the rubble.”
The same TV station, Cortamortaja, reported the collapse of a hospital in Juchitán and showed images of doctors and nurses treating patients in the backyard.
In Guatemala, which shares Mexico’s southern border, the military was out early Friday morning assessing the damage.
The earthquake struck mainly in the west of the country. In the state capital of Huehuetenango, bricks and glass were strewn on the ground as walls collapsed. Quetzaltenango, Guatemala’s second-largest city, which was beginning to recover from a tremor in June, suffered more damage to its historic center.