It may feel premature for a missive about how last week’s earthquake in Mexico City jolted my world of privilege. My sincere hope is that this reflection will not be seen as cavalier toward the suffering of fellow humans less fortunate than I. This is simply a reflection on my own experiences, and an attempt to help myself and those I’m close to make sense of the question “now what?” after a scary and stressful experience. If you’d rather just make a donation to folks head down to the bottom of the article for links to the Red Cross / Cruz Roja donation portals.
This summer has been one of natural calamities in the Americas. Three category 4+ hurricanes and two 7+ magnitude earthquake events in the Mexican heartland have citizens from Tampa, to Houston, from St Vincent to San Juan, from Ciudad de México to Tuxtla Gutiérrez feeling raw and vulnerable. In far too many places people at the margins continue to experience profound discomfort and dislocation, if not outright humanitarian catastrophe. We no longer know where we stand with respect to our “home” when the places where we work, play, love, and rest become dangerous and foreign. This sense of uprootedness can give rise to a host of questions: “What am I doing here?” “Am I safe?” “Would I be better off somewhere else?”
I’ve been asking myself all of the above. When the earthquake hit I was with the Credijusto engineering team in our 4th story office in La Roma, one of the most seismically active parts of the city. I, along with one of my team members, were among the last out the door. As the earthquake intensified I feared a stampede in the stairwell and ducked into the doorway of the 3rd floor office to ride out the worst of the quake. As glass shattered and broken bits of concrete rained from the ceiling, I wondered if the building would collapse, and saw sheer terror in my friend’s eyes, mirroring my own. After the shaking subsided the ensuing hours were a flurry of activity: get a headcount from each team lead; get our people out from underneath power lines above the street; run back into the building for the cash and cellphones that people needed to communicate with their families and make their way back to their homes; run back in again to move all the valuable hardware out of the office and into a safe house, anticipating a night of looting; lend a hand wherever I could in my neighborhood as brigades of local volunteers desperately worked alongside emergency services to pull survivors from the rubble of fallen buildings. I spent the night on a bean bag with my girlfriend in her office, exhausted, neither of us able to return to our homes given the possibility that they sustained major structural damage. You could almost feel the city bleeding, taste the deep uncertainty lingering in the air. Almost two weeks later many of us are still feeling this.
So what’s the best way to pick up and keep moving after a gut punch knocks you off balance? The first and most critical step is to take care of your heart. You’re going to feel what you’re going to feel. Some of my friends just bounced back. The next day they were at work without any apparent need to pause and process. I was more rattled. It took a weekend trip back to Chicago where I ate mom’s cooking, swam in lake Michigan with my pops, and walked along the river downtown with my sister and her husband, to really feel like I’d started to release the mala vibra from the week. And I’m not embarrassed to admit that when I describe that day to friends, in particular the experience of trying to lend a hand at two different collapsed building sites, I still get choked. Mourn, rest, be with people you love without interrogating the “validity” of your feelings. Then think about next steps.
Once you’ve dealt with the emotional realities there’s a more appropriate, rational process that needs to happen. This is all about weighing uncertain future risks and costs against the real costs and benefits associated with different choices that we make today. E.g., “Do I return to my apartment after it’s cleared by municipal inspectors, or look for a place in a different part of town?” or “I just don’t feel safe here anymore. Maybe I should head back to Ontario…” As a statistician I tend to view our lives as a series of gambles that we make in the face of uncertainty, and have tried to frame my thinking around recent events accordingly. If we’re too casual about avoiding risks in the future we’re liable to get burned. Yet if we’re overly concerned with unlikely future events we can become distracted by unproductive fear, or take measures to protect ourselves that come at an unnecessarily high cost to our quality of life today. This applies not just to natural disasters, but to pretty much any situation that involves a risk versus reward trade-off in the face of future uncertainty. I’m going to focus the quick analysis in the next paragraph on earthquakes in Mexico. An analysis of hurricane exposure in the Caribbean, especially given increasing severe storm frequency attributable to climate change, could very well lead to a different set of conclusions.
First a bit of data. Pages 122–123 of this PDF copy of Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise tell us that big earthquakes are extremely rare. And this article on fivethirtyeight.com argues convincingly that they are nearly impossible to predict, and we’re not likely to get much better at it any time soon (in contrast, predictions for extreme weather events, within a several day window, have gotten much more precise in recent decades). In the event that a large earthquake does happen where you live, what’s your risk of death? According to the Wikipedia entry for the September 18th earthquake, Mexico City recorded 86 of the 333 total reported deaths. The greater Mexico City urban area has around 21.3 million people in it. Assuming that your risk of death if you live in the city is random (which ignores that it does indeed depend very much on where you live and how wealthy you are), your chances of having perished in the last earthquake were are around 0.0004%, or around 1 in 248,000. Doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation on the past century of Mexican earthquake data we can conservatively assume that an event like this happens around once every 30 years in Mexico City. This drops your annual earthquake mortality risk down to around 1 in 7,440,000 if you allow recent rather than historic figures to set your fatality benchmark. By contrast, your odds of dying in a car crash on a given year in an average American city are around 1 in 50,822. You’re about 150x more likely to die in a car crash in America than you are to be killed by an earthquake in Mexico City. If you’re a motorcycle rider that ratio gets closer to 300x. I didn’t crunch Mexican traffic fatality numbers, but given how people drive in this city I’m sure they’d be even starker.
This is morbid math that feels icky given the real pain and suffering that the earthquake caused so many in Mexico. And obviously death isn’t the only thing we care about: injury, displacement, and economic disruption were much more widespread. Yet la neta is that earthquakes like this are (a) rare, (b) extremely difficult to predict, and (c) not really that deadly when they do happen. For me, the implications when it comes to day-to-day life are that I’m going to take reasonable precautions to live and work in spaces that are modern and built to code, but that there’s no strong argument for a major lifestyle change, nor is it productive to carry around cognitive or emotional baggage about the possibility of the next “big one.” The Alcoholics Anonymous prayer feels instructive here: Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things that I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
Tying this all together, here’s a template that I propose for dealing with natural disasters that unexpectedly barge in on our daily sense of well being:
- In the immediate, take care of your physical health. Be safe, and get as close as you can to water, food, shelter, and medical attention.
- Once you’ve stabilized, allow your internal process to run its course, and do what you need to do to heal internally and gather yourself emotionally. Give yourself and those you love a lot of grace.
- Read and assess, in as level-headed of a way as possible, your real risk of experiencing repeated events like the one you just experienced, and compare that risk to the variety of risks that you unthinkingly take on every day as a matter of course.
I haven’t run numbers for hurricane exposure in the Gulf / the Caribbean. If you have, or know of an article that has, send it my way. I’m bullish on Mexico City. I’d probably be much less bullish on beachfront real estate in the Florida Keys. For now I’m continuing to fall in love with my most recent adopted home, and hope that you’ll make the trip down yourself to experience Mexico City’s charms. It’s safe, the food is delicious, the night life is never boring, and it seems like every corner is exploding with life and color. It’s a delightful place to live and work.
On a closing note, if you would like to make a financial contribution toward those suffering from the Mexican earthquakes, or any number of other natural or man-made global crises, I tend to think that the Red Cross is a responsible bet: