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UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction


Hurricane Otis must not be forgotten

By Monica Ledezma, on 1 February 2024

photo of debris and damage to cars and buildings in Acapulco.
The aftermath of Hurricane Otis. Photo by Monica Ledezma.

The weekend started as any other in Acapulco, the sun shining was over the bay. I was with my family staying at a well-known hotel on the coast. A diving session was booked for the coming Wednesday. There was no hint or warning of any worrying weather.

The Disaster

The spots of rain during the day didn’t worry us, but that soon changed when a news broadcast alerted us to an approaching tropical storm. We did not receive any specific preparation instructions during the day.

The hurricane was expected to reach the shore by 5-6 am the next day. Airplanes continued to land in Acapulco throughout the day. Acapulco was crowding with more than 50% of the city occupied: it was hosting the 35th International Mining Convention that week with the opening ceremony scheduled at 6pm on that day, with no restrictions.

When my family and I came back from dinner, we noticed that the room windows were covered with packaging tape and our personal belongings kept near the balcony were safely stored inside the room. We received a letter from the hotel saying that we should stay in the room announcing that the next day the hotel services would remain open. We started preparing for the hurricane by going to the convenience store and buying water and food.

At 11pm we heard the heavy rains and ferocious winds at 270 km/hr ravaging everything on its way. Furniture was flying through the air and falling into swimming pools and the sea. We could hear the winds peeling off the glass of almost every hotel.

The building moved as if it was an earthquake, the ceiling and walls which were not made of concrete fell to the floor. We had been told to stay in the room, but it was falling apart around us, so we moved to the corridor instead. Suddenly we heard some voices of a couple of men directing us to the basement where the rest of the hotel guests were heading.

We went down 12 floors to the basement and stayed there for more than 7 hours with the rest of the guests under emergency lighting with no water or electricity. It was warm and all guests and hotel staff were focused on helping and surviving.

photo of destroyed hotel room. Debris and furniture spread across the floor.
Hurricane Otis destroyed hotel rooms. Photo by Monica Ledezma.

The Aftermath

The worst of it had passed by 6 am, but the picture outside was exactly like what I had seen in the movies. There was destruction everywhere. Luckily for us, our cars were safely parked far away from the shore, but the roads were blocked by all the debris. Through shattered glass, fallen palm trees, and even bits of steel structures, it took us 6 hours to find a way to go out from Acapulco and back to Mexico City. There was no sign of any authorities, nor any support from the army or navy, nobody to help in the streets. No power supply, no gas. We were making decisions ourselves to the best of our capacity. Stores soon started to be vandalized.

For the next 6 hours, we were stuck on the highway which was partially damaged. Only then we saw the Army trucks on their way to Acapulco—now sharing the only available highway with civilians trying to get out—15 hours after the disaster happened.  

A sequence of neglected communication

At 16:18 on Sunday, October 22nd, official information by Proteccion Civil warned that a “tropical storm” was located in the southeast of Acapulco, far away from our wildest imagination. Early on Tuesday, the state governor stated that the tropical storm had turned into hurricane category 1. She insisted that adequate attention was taking place to safeguard the population’s well-being for its arrival early on Wednesday. 631 refugee centers were habilitated to support 137,000 people.

At least 10 hours before the hurricane, the National Center for Hurricanes in the US warned about the risk and potential catastrophic events. Only at 8 pm, the president finally acknowledged what US authorities have been repeatedly highlighting as a Category 4 hurricane, but it was too late now to take any protective measures.

Otis is, to date, the highest category hurricane recorded at any station of the National Tidal Service. The possibility that climate change encouraged Otis to transform from a tropical storm into a hurricane highlights the importance of adapting our infrastructure to this change.

The disaster happened in hours, the wind and rain swept everything away, and we suddenly felt the vulnerability and lack of support and guidance. We were fortunate enough to get to the shelter but we will always remember the images of the windows shattering, the ceiling crumbling, and how close we were to falling from the 10th floor balcony. We were just not prepared for it. The government authorities decided to neglect the fact that it was happening, underestimating its strength.

I still have these questions in my mind: what would it take if the authorities had told us what to do, where to go, and warned us how strong this would be? What would have happened if the Army and Navy forces had been there since the first alert came in? Why did the government ignore and underestimate the warnings? I hope to get an answer someday.

Monica Ledezma completed the MSc in Global Health and Development at UCL in 2020/21. Monica has worked at Roche since 2016  in the Diabetes Care Division.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author.

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Integrating Earthquake Early Warnings into Organisational Resilience: The case-study of Mexico City

By ucesvel, on 28 April 2020

Mexico has been historically impacted by earthquakes due to its geographical location within the well-known ring of fire. In September 1985, a large earthquake heavily affected the country, leaving behind a substantial death-toll, injuries and hundreds of collapsed structures. As a result, many DRR changes emerged, such as establishing the National System of Civil Protection and updating the construction code for Mexico City, adding new necessary regulations regarding seismic design. The Mexican Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) system was also proposed in 1986, and in 1991 the system began operations.

The Mexican Earthquake Early Warning System (source: cires.org.mx).

The EEW system was tested in September 2017 when two earthquakes hit the south and central regions of the country, on the 7th and 19th of September, respectively.  A 90-seconds warning was effectively released to the residents of Mexico City on September 7, but no alert was given on September 19, as the area surrounding the epicentre was not covered by the EEW’s seismic network.  In addition, the capital was very close to the epicentre, therefore, if the EEW was able to provide a warning, it would have been very short, and the impact had still been the same. This was challenging to accept. The residents expressed their concerns as they expected to receive an alert.

Residential building that collapsed in Mexico City during the 19 Sep 2017 earthquake.

In the last two years, several scholars investigated peoples’ reactions to the Mexican EEW system. The results show that there is a lack of public understanding on how the Mexican EEW system operates. In that same period of time, also my interest in the topic raised significatively. I started talking with relatives and friends who live in Mexico City. I understood that few people nowadays are properly informed about the operational basics and potential benefits of the EEW system.

In April 2019, my supervisor Dr Carmine Galasso (UCL CEGE) and I decided to extend the topic of my thesis in earthquake engineering to include the societal dimension of the EEW. We involved Dr Gianluca Pescaroli (UCL IRDR) as second supervisor, who suggested to focus on understanding how organisations integrate the alerts in their operational procedures. This was developed into a phased project titled ‘Integrating earthquake early warnings into organisational resilience’. The different components of the project were financed by the British Academy’s Leverhulme Small Research Grant, supported by the United Kingdom’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Grant Reference: SRG19\191797), and by the Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team’s (EEFIT) 2019 Research Award. The main goal of this project is to provide new and impact-oriented insights on the connection between the technical and social components of the Mexican EEW. In particular, we aim to investigate which measures could be needed to increase the organisational resilience of local community stakeholders and the private sector, such as business and infrastructure providers, deriving new guidelines for improving emergency preparedness.

Our first steps led to a journal paper, currently in review, that studied the technical and social aspects of EEW in 4 countries where EEWs operate with different levels of maturity: Italy (Campania region), the USA (West-Coast), Mexico and Japan. What emerged in the Mexican context shows that technically the EEW system performs well but the applicability in the social and organisational context is very poor. We investigated the critical interaction between the technical, organisational, social and political spheres, including elements such as stakeholders’ perceptions of the Mexican EEW system, the current status of planning for mitigating disruptions, and training needs related to EEW.

The second phase of the project involved data collection in Mexico City. As a research assistant, I developed the fieldwork during the months of December and January. At this step, Professor Irasema Alcantara-Ayala (UNAM Mexico) and Ms Sandra Camacho-Otero (ARISE-MX) also became part of the investigation team. They were very kind in providing comments and suggestions for the format of the interview so that it became more contextualised to the Mexican background. I carried out 15 semi-structured interviews targeted at experts in the areas of Local Government-Civil Protection, Private Sector, Academia, Disaster Risk Reduction, Civil, Seismic and Mechanical Engineering, Hazard Modelling, Architecture, NGOs and Civil Societies. I sincerely thank my friends Oscar Cardel and Tai Cardel as they incredibly helped me to approach those top experts in Mexico City who are closely related to the EEW system.

After the third interview, I noted that the respondents were very interested in the subject, more than I actually imagined. During the 4th interview, I decided to inquire more in the sections related to DRR education in Mexico, acceptability of false alerts and the perception of the EEW system outside Mexico City. This was done with the previous confirmation and consent of my supervisors as these topics were more secondary. In my opinion, this was a clever move as the respondents showed plenty of interest for every single question I was asking, and the collected data will result in very interesting conclusions and outcomes. In fact, the first interviews had a duration of 30 to 40 minutes approximately, while interviews 4 to 15 had a duration no shorter than 1.5 hours.

One of the biggest challenges I faced during the interviews was dealing with some concern as I knew I was interviewing very important people in Mexico. Also, some questions exposed subjects about the lack of organisation and capacity of the EEW system and of those bodies in charge of DRR in Mexico City. At some point, I thought their hierarchy and expertise might come over me and make me hesitate or feel without confidence during the interviews. However, I managed to have a composed attitude during every single interview and whenever the atmosphere became slightly challenging, I knew how to deal with the situation. Nevertheless, I did not have any kind of tough discussion nor important issues with any of the interviewees. I strongly believe the fact that all questions had a strong background based on previous studies and experiences, and that I prepared myself, mentally and academically, helped me a lot not to panic.

A second visit to Mexico City was planned in the months of March and April to distribute a questionnaire and obtain more data. However, the Covid-19 pandemic did not allow it. Therefore, we had to switch to an online format and produce an online questionnaire that was delivered through the UCL’s Web-Based Survey Tool ‘Opinio’. I would also like to express my gratitude to my friend Mara Torres-Pinedo for her recommendations and ideas to improve the quality of the questionnaire.

Right now, the project is at the analysis stage where we are implementing qualitative and quantitative analyses of the collected data. In the following weeks, we are expecting to culminate the analysis process and begin the discussion phase. Considering the data acquired, we feel confident that the results of the study will have a positive significance, so we are targeting to publish our results in a high-impact journal for the dissemination of the results and conclusions.

Aftermath of the 19 Sep 17 earthquake in southern Mexico (source: globalmedia.mx).

For more information and updates, please visit the ResearchGate website of the project.