Within eight seconds, the damage was done.
Walls and buildings collapsed, old homes and churches crumbled and the clock tower standing tall in the center of Cuernavaca cracked.
Cellphone service and electricity were immediately out. But as the lights started operating again, so did the people.
“Mexico just stopped in its tracks to help everybody affected,” Desmond Warren, a Missouri State senior public relations major and Spanish minor, said. Warren is studying abroad in Mexico, and, in December, will return home after over a year.
“There are doctors and medical help from all over the world here. … The Mexico City Facebook page made a post asking for bilingual people to come and help translate for doctors and engineers. … You can’t go two blocks without seeing a drop-off center.”
Warren was about 60 miles from the second earthquake – of 7.1 magnitude – to impact Mexico in less than two weeks.
The first, which hit on Sept. 8 at 8.1 magnitude, wasn’t felt by everyone in Cuernavaca.
But the second one was.
It was 1:15 p.m. on Sept. 19.
“I was in class when it happened,” Warren said. “It was so weird because I heard this sound like a rumbling from a distance … so I thought a truck could be passing the school, but our classes are so far into campus that it wouldn’t really make sense.
“The building started to shake two seconds after I heard that, but it started as light shaking like people were running on the second floor. A second or two after that, someone said ‘Earthquake!’ and, another second later, it really started shaking and people started screaming. We got up to go outside. The building around us was shaking back and forth, so it was hard to keep balance. By the time we were outside, it had stopped.”
Warren said the earthquake, though scary, became a chance to be a helping hand to his temporary home.
“It was actually cool seeing this take place,” Warren said. “Once power was back on, people were already organizing drop-off centers for food and supplies.”
The day after the second earthquake, first thing in the morning, Warren and a few friends went to a local grocery store to retrieve food and supplies like canned tuna, bottled water and hygiene products. They delivered to a drop-off point where fellow volunteers made care packages and loaded trucks to mobilize support.
After that, the group went to Red Cross, where enough volunteers already arrived that they were turned away – for the time being.
The next day, the group mobilized help on its own. They took a bus about an hour toward the quake’s destruction.
“We got to the center of the city and there was literally lines of cars in every single street of people dropping stuff off,” Warren said, adding that hundreds of people turned up with donations.
For five hours, they unloaded semis and pickup trucks — even a tractor — filled with donations and supplies.
By the next day, the situation calmed. Since those initial efforts, Warren partnered with his church members, who continue to put together care packages.
Warren said classes across southern Mexico were canceled for the week. They’re supposed to return Sept. 25, but many students commute from smaller, nearby cities that were nearly destroyed.
Warren said he was inspired to study abroad by the friends he made at MSU.
He made several Latino friends whose families only spoke Spanish and, when visiting their homes, realized he wanted to make a change.
“I was like ‘I am not going to let this language barrier keep me from communicating with people,’” Warren said.
So he became an international student last fall.
Warren’s classmates include 16 other international students from around the world, including Belgium, Holland, France, Korea and Brazil, but he is the only MSU student at his university.
He isn’t, however, the only MSU student in Mexico.
Carolyn Steensland, an MSU junior studying Spanish education, experienced an earthquake for the first time during her third week studying abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico.
She hasn’t had a full week of classes yet.
“There have been several earthquakes since I’ve gotten here,” Steensland said. “They’re common, just not at the capacity of those (biggest) two. … The first week I was here, that Thursday, there was a ton of rain and stormy weather. I was getting ready for bed – it was probably 10 minutes until midnight – and (the earthquake) lasted a minute or so.”
That one was an 8.1 magnitude, but Steensland said her city felt the 7.1 magnitude one as well.
“My friends and I were walking home from school and, all of the sudden, the ground starts shaking … people started running into the streets,” Steensland said. “Compared to other natural disasters, (earthquakes) have no warning. The ground is just moving beneath you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The second earthquake, Steensland said, was particularly eerie because it happened on the anniversary of a Mexico City earthquake that killed thousands in 1985.
That, combined with the excessive power of two earthquakes within 12 days, has her community strained.
“People keep saying (the earthquakes) are not normal because they happen all the time here but you usually don’t feel them” Steensland said. “Everyone is a little on edge because there were two big ones right away … and cautious because of the aftershocks. You don’t know if (they’re) just in your head. I was in church this morning feeling (the movement of) people crossing or uncrossing their legs and you just don’t know.”
But, despite that strain, they remain a — strengthening — community.
“People here are so generous and so willing to help out neighbors,” Steensland said. “Even though our city had no deaths, people are still on every corner collecting food to send and people walk around with tip jars to send money. … They even cancelled activities on Independence Day in Mexico because they didn’t want to be celebrating when all these people were hurting really badly.”
Steensland said that sense of community was part of her inspiration, and fascination, that led her to take Spanish classes in high school.
As a future teacher, she decided to study abroad to better equip herself.
And, while Steensland said she didn’t dwell on the possibility of an earthquake before leaving for Mexico, she didn’t have to.
MSU purchases insurance for students studying abroad, as a precaution for falling ill or needing other medical care while out of the country.
In more extreme situations, it can be used to cover plane tickets or other expenses for students needing an evacuation due to political unrest, natural disaster or a medical emergency.
And, while it’s not very common, the Study Away Program is prepared to evacuate students if such a situation arises.
Elizabeth Strong, the director of MSU’s Study Away Program, said there’s been about three students caught in a natural disaster until now.
“In 2011, a student was in Cairo, Egypt, to study Arabic and Middle Eastern studies,” Strong said. “The Arab Spring erupted and (he) was in the midst of it.”
In that case, the student wasn’t evacuated immediately because he felt he could stay. It wasn’t until a week later the program convinced him of leaving.
Later that year, in March, a student was in Japan during a tsunami.
In 2015, a student – doing her studies in Ireland – visited Paris for a weekend to go to a concert when a bomb went off nearby. At the time, she was in a pub that went on lockdown.
Any time a student studies somewhere a natural disaster or political unrest occurs, Strong said, a well-practiced protocol is ready. Part of the program’s application system allows students to be located and contacted quickly.
The student receives an email – categorized as “urgent” – asking them to check in. Students are expecting to be asked to check in if a situation arises. They are asked to respond with as little as one word: “Safe.”
And if the student doesn’t respond within a timely manner, officials with the Study Away Program already have a list of emergency contacts on hand.
“Often times, in these situations, I do have to call moms and dads because they’ll have an update from the student before the Study Away staff does,” Strong said.
However, in the case of the earthquakes in Mexico, Warren and Steensland were safe and wanted to continue their studies.
“Our first priority is the health and safety of MSU students,” Strong said. “That’s the top goal of our program. MSU wants to be an international campus and we understand the risks associated with study away, but we do what we can to manage and mitigate risks.
“We can’t rest until we know our students are safe.”