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'We are all collapsed, our homes and our people': Death toll from Mexico earthquake reaches 61

Rescuers have been searching for survivors with sniffer dogs and heavy machinery.

ONE OF THE most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in Mexico and a raging hurricane have dealt a devastating one-two punch to the country, killing at least 61 people as workers scramble to respond to the twin national emergencies.

The 8.1 magnitude quake off the southern Pacific coast just before midnight on Thursday toppled hundreds of buildings in several states.

Hardest-hit was Juchitan, Oaxaca, where 36 people died and a third of the city’s homes collapsed or were otherwise rendered uninhabitable, President Enrique Pena Nieto said late yesterday in an interview with the Televisa news network.

MEXICO-OAXACA-EARTHQUAKE-PRESIDENT Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto delivers a speech in the town of Juchitan. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

In downtown Juchitan, the remains of brick walls and clay tile roofs cluttered streets as families dragged mattresses onto pavements to spend a second anxious night sleeping outdoors. Some were newly homeless, while others feared further aftershocks could topple their cracked adobe dwellings.

“We are all collapsed, our homes and our people,” said Rosa Elba Ortiz Santiago, 43, who sat with her teenage son and more than a dozen neighbours on an assortment of chairs.

We are used to earthquakes, but not of this magnitude.

Even as she spoke, across the country, Hurricane Katia was roaring onshore north of Tecolutla in Veracruz state, pelting the region with intense rains and winds.

The US National Hurricane Center reported Katia’s maximum sustained winds had dropped to 120 kph, making it a Category 1 storm when it made landfall. And it rapidly weakened even further over land into a tropical storm.

The centre said Katia was expected to dissipate over the course of today. But it was still expected to bring life-threatening floods and storm surge off the Gulf of Mexico, though the extent of the storm’s impact was unclear in the dark of night.

MEXICO-OAXACA-EARTHQUAKE Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Pena Nieto announced that the earthquake killed 45 people in Oaxaca state, 12 in Chiapas and 4 in Tabasco, and he declared three days of national mourning.

The toll included 36 dead in Juchitan, located on the narrow waist of Oaxaca known as the Isthmus, where a hospital and about half the city hall also collapsed into rubble.

Next to Ortiz, 47-year-old Jose Alberto Martinez said he and family members have long been accustomed to earthquakes. So when the ground started moving, at first they simply waited a bit for it to stop — until objects began falling and they bolted for the street.

“We felt like the house was coming down on top of us,” Martinez said, accompanied by his wife, son and mother-in-law.

Now, he doesn’t feel safe going back inside until the home is inspected. Right next door an older building had crumbled into a pile of rough timbers, brick and stucco, while little remained of a white church on the corner.

Rescuers searched for survivors yesterday with sniffer dogs and used heavy machinery at the main square to pull rubble away from city hall, where a missing municipal police officer was believed to be inside.

The city’s civil defence coordinator, Jose Antonio Marin Lopez, said similar searches had been going on all over the area since the previous night.

Teams found bodies in the rubble, but the highlight was pulling four people, including two children, alive from the completely collapsed Hotel Del Rio where one woman died.

“The priority continues to be the people,” Marin said.

Pena Nieto said authorities were working to re-establish the supply of water and food and provide medical attention to those who need it. He vowed the government would help rebuild.

“The power of this earthquake was devastating, but we are certain that the power of unity, the power of solidarity and the power of shared responsibility will be greater,” Pena Nieto said.

MEXICO-OAXACA-EARTHQUAKE Members of security forces remove debris from collapsed structures in Juchitan.

Power was cut at least briefly to more than 1.8 million people, and authorities closed schools in at least 11 states to check them for safety.

The Interior Department reported that 428 homes were destroyed and 1,700 were damaged in Chiapas alone.

The earthquake also jolted the Mexican capital, which largely lies atop a former lakebed where the soil is known to amplify seismic waves.

Mexico City escaped major damage, though part of a bridge on a highway being built to the site of a planned new international airport collapsed due to the earthquake, local media reported.

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