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Blame starts to fly over Mexico quake collapses
By Jean Luis ARCE
Mexico City (AFP) Sept 26, 2017

Mexico teaches quake volunteers not to make things worse
Mexico City (AFP) Sept 25, 2017 - As thousands of volunteers gather to dig out victims of Mexico's devastating earthquake, rescuers have started organizing crash courses to stop well-meaning but inept helpers from making the situation worse.

Professional rescuers warned of chaos in the dangerous rubble piles, saying blundering volunteers could cause further collapse in unstable structures.

"You don't save lives with your heart, you save them with organization," said rescue worker Juan Carlos Gutierrez, his voice rising almost to a shout.

So far the volunteers, helping professional rescue workers, have dragged more than 100 people out of the ruins left by the September 19 quake that caused widespread destruction across Mexico City.

But, seeing the risks they pose, a dozen groups of so-called "moles" -- as the diggers who burrow their way into collapsed buildings are known -- organized courses for would-be volunteers.

These cover everything from how to master their emotions to the rapid extraction of people and the removal of valuables from the ruins.

- 'Everyone wants to be a hero' -

The enthusiastic volunteers, ranging in age from the very old to the very young, start their free, eight-hour course with the basics.

"So, how fast should we be walking?" Gutierrez asked his class as they began their course under the hot sun.

"At 120 paces a minute, or 130 paces a minute if we are told to speed up," said one of the volunteers, notebook in hand.

Gutierrez, a short, heavyset man, intoned in a quasi-military tone: "There's no point running!"

Other instructors reminded recruits that despite completing the course, their task will not be to lift debris or take people out of the ruins, tasks that demand a higher level of training.

"One of our volunteers said he had experience and then rappelled down a rope and started hitting a wall with a mallet, it was a disaster," said Brandon Cid, one of the trainers at the Parque Bicentenario, which saw 650 people take part in the first day, with another 400 on the waiting list.

"Be careful! Instead of helping, we can become part of the problem," the instructors kept reminding volunteers.

"Everyone wants to be a hero in a situation like this and that's not good," said Dia Ordaz, a volunteer who had signed up for a class.

Ordaz, a 36-year-old teacher, said there were multiple hazards in the work, including "gas leaks, haywire traffic, clashes between people."

With tears in his eyes, he recalled the "marvel" of so many volunteers showing up by foot or on motorbike not only in the rubble piles but also to distribute aid to victims on foot, or by bicycle and motorbike.

"Yes, it is frightening, but when they say there is someone in the rubble, it's impressive to see how thousands of people can show up to help one person, no matter who it is," he said.

- Not everyone helps -

In the minutes immediately after the quake, hundreds of people formed human chains to remove, stone by stone, fallen walls, staircases and roofs.

"Unfortunately not everyone helped" and "we saw the risks that were created, and people had to learn that you can't help simply with your heart," Gutierrez told AFP.

"We already have lives at risk and people in danger, and we can't have any more added to that," said the rescue worker who had also pulled people from the ruins during the even more devastating earthquake that rocked Mexico City on the same day, September 19, 1985.

He also helped rescue efforts in the quake that hit Oaxaca and Chiapas in the southeast of the country on September 7.

Allegations of negligent construction and poor oversight began to fly Monday after deadly building collapses during Mexico's earthquake, as hope faded of finding more survivors of a disaster that killed more than 300 people.

The most high-profile collapse occurred at a school where 19 children were killed last week -- a structure which was built illegally on land reserved for housing, according to local media reports.

Mexico City's mayor, the education minister and the top official for the district all traded blame after reports that the Enrique Rebsamen primary school operated using false documents.

"If confirmed, it would be very serious," Education Minister Aurelio Nuno told TV network Televisa, saying he had ordered an investigation.

The government has also come in for criticism from anguished families of people still missing after Tuesday's earthquake.

"All they tell us are lies," said Anel Jimenez, 42, whose cousin Martin Estrada, a 30-year-old accountant, was inside a seven-story office building when it collapsed.

"No one from the government has come to show their face. They just send low-profile officials who always have clean helmets and shiny shoes. They just come to see what they can get out of other people's pain."

Political analysts said the quake underlined politicians' lack of credibility, less than a year out from presidential elections.

Just 35 percent of Mexicans approve of President Enrique Pena Nieto's response, according to a poll by the newspaper Reforma.

"Anger with the political class will be the political aftermath of the earthquake," said the Eurasia Group consulting firm.

"This shows the deeply rooted discontent which is likely to continue."

Rescue workers have now wrapped up their efforts at all but five sites in Mexico City, and the chances of pulling any more survivors from the rubble are dim.

But Pena Nieto has been careful to insist that authorities will not send in bulldozers to start cleanup until rescuers are absolutely certain there are no more people in the rubble.

The building where Estrada's cousin was located, at 286 Alvaro Obregon Avenue in the trendy Roma neighborhood, is now the main search site. It crumpled into a tangled heap of concrete and steel with 132 people inside.

Twenty-nine people were rescued alive from the building in the first days, and 69 across the city.

But since late Friday, only bodies have been recovered.

- Wary return to 'normal' -

In Mexico City, people began to warily return to work and school.

After nearly a week of eerie quiet in the sprawling city of 20 million people, the capital's notorious traffic jams were starting to appear again.

Of the capital's 8,700 schools, 103 reopened Monday, the education ministry said. The rest were due to resume classes in the coming days, after undergoing architectural inspections.

The stakes are high for an already widely criticized government. After an earlier earthquake on September 7, all schools were given a clean bill of health.

But the city was shocked by the primary school collapse that killed 19 children and seven adults.

An aftershock that shook Mexico City on Saturday has made the country all the more jittery.

And the sense of vulnerability has only been heightened by the fact that Tuesday's earthquake struck on the anniversary of a 1985 quake that killed more than 10,000 people, the worst in Mexican history.

Mexico is particularly earthquake-prone, sitting atop five tectonic plates.

Many people are still on edge and suffering from post-traumatic stress, said psychologist Raquel Gonzalez, part of a team offering free counseling sessions in a park at the heart of the disaster zone.

"The people who come feel like the ground is still moving. They're very afraid," she told AFP.

The latest death toll stands at 326 people -- 187 of them in Mexico City.

Puerto Rico governor fears 'humanitarian crisis' over slow US aid
San Juan (AFP) Sept 26, 2017
Puerto Rico's Governor Ricardo Rossello said Monday he fears a "humanitarian crisis" on the island if the United States does not take "swift action" to help the US territory, which was devastated by deadly Hurricane Maria last week. With federal aid only trickling in, many Puerto Ricans have already started their own cleanup operations, with some small shops and restaurants reopening with th ... read more

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