A major earthquake — maybe the worst in a century — shook Mexico’s southern coast with a magnitude of just over 8.0 in the middle of the night on Thursday, causing multiple deaths.
Quoting local calculations, President Enrique Pena Nieto said that the tremor clocked in at a massive 8.2 on the Richter scale, making it the largest earthquake to hit Mexico in 100 years — even larger than the magnitude 8.1 quake in 1985, which killed thousands and devastated large sections of Mexico City. Houses and at least one hotel toppled, electricity was cut, and people fled into the streets in panic.
The U.S. Geological Survey reported the earthquake’s magnitude at 8.1, saying it was centered off of Chiapas state, near the Guatemalan border.
At least five people have reportedly died, but the death toll could rise as authorities assess the damage. The government closed schools Friday in at least 11 states to check them for safety.
The U.S. Geological Survey recorded at least 20 aftershocks of magnitude 4.0 or greater within about five hours after the main event, and the president warned that a major aftershock as large as magnitude 7.2 could occur.
Serious damage was caused by the quake, according to Pena Nieto, and afterward, 1 million customers were left without power. So far, electricity has been restored to 800,000 of them.
The USGS said the quake struck at 11:49 p.m. Thursday local time and its epicenter was 1o2 miles (165 kilometers) west of Tapachula in Chiapas. It had a depth of 69.7 kilometers (43.3 miles).
Buildings in Mexico’s capital — more than 1,000 kilometers (650 miles) away — swayed violently. Residents fled the buildings, many in their pajamas, and gathered in frightened groups in the street.
“The house moved like chewing gum, and the light and internet went out momentarily,” said Rodrigo Soberanes, who lives near San Cristobal de las Casas in the southernmost state of Chiapas.
Chiapas Gov. Manuel Velasco said that three people were killed in San Cristobal, including two women who died when a house and a wall collapsed. People living near the coast are being urged to leave their homes as a protective measure.
“There is damage to hospitals that have lost energy,” he said. “Homes, schools and hospitals have been damaged.”
Tabasco Gov. Arturo Nunez said two children had died in his Gulf coast state. One of them was killed when a wall collapsed, and the other was a baby who died in a children’s hospital that lost electricity, cutting off the infant’s ventilator.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said waves of one meter (3.3 feet) above the tide level were measured off Salina Cruz, Mexico. Smaller tsunami waves were observed on the coast or measured by ocean gauges in several other places. The center’s forecast said Ecuador, El Salvador, and Guatemala could see waves of a meter or less. No threat was posed to Hawaii and the western and South Pacific.
Mexican authorities have evacuated some residents of coastal Puerto Madero because of the warning.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Mexicans are preparing to deal with Hurricane Katia, which is likely to strike the Gulf coast in the state of Veracruz early Saturday as a Category 2 storm that could bring life-threatening floods, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
In neighboring Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales took to national television to call for calm while emergency crews checked for damage.
“We have reports of some damage and the death of one person, even though we still don’t have details,” Morales said. The unconfirmed death occurred in San Marcos state near the border with Mexico.
Lucy Jones, a seismologist in California who works with the U.S. Geological Survey, said the quake was not unexpected.
“Off the west coast of Mexico is what’s called the subduction zone. The Pacific Plate is moving under the Mexican peninsula,” she said. “It’s a very flat fault, so it’s a place that has big earthquakes relatively often because of that.”
“There’s likely to be a small tsunami going to the southwest. It’s not going to be coming up and affecting California or Hawaii,” she said. “For tsunami generation, an 8 is relatively small.”
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