Sudden and historic earthquake hits southern Mexico

MEXICO CITY — One of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in Mexico struck off the country’s southern coast, toppling hundreds of buildings, triggering tsunami evacuations and sending panicked people fleeing into the streets in the middle of the night. At least 32 people were reportedto have been killed.

The quake that hit late Thursday was strong enough to cause buildings to sway violently in the capital city more than 650 miles (1,000 kilometers) away. As beds banged against walls, people still wearing pajamas ran out of their homes and gathered in frightened groups.

Rodrigo Soberanes, who lives near San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, the state nearest the epicenter, said his house “moved like chewing gum.”

The furious shaking created a second national emergency for Mexican agencies already bracing for Hurricane Katia on the other side of the country. The system was expected to strike the Gulf Coast in the state of Veracruz as early Saturday as a Category 2 storm that could bring life-threatening floods.

The worst-hit city appeared to be Juchitan, on the narrow waist of Oaxaca known as the Isthmus. Video from the scene showed that about half of the city hall collapsed in a pile of rubble. Local officials said at least 17 of the 32 dead were in Juchitan.

 Soldiers remove debris from a partly collapsed municipal building felled by a massive earthquake in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Friday, Sept. 8.

Soldiers remove debris from a partly collapsed municipal building felled by a massive earthquake in Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Friday, Sept. 8.

The capital escaped major damage, but the quake terrified sleeping residents, many of whom still remember the catastrophic 1985earthquake that killed thousands and devastated large parts of the city.

Families were jerked awake by the howling shriek of the capital’s seismic alarm. Some shouted as they dashed out of rocking apartment buildings. Even the iconic Angel of Independene Monument swayed as the quake’s waves rolled through the city’s soft soil.

Elsewhere, the extent of destruction was still emerging. Hundreds of buildings collapsed or were damaged, power was cut at least briefly to more than 1.8 million people and authorities closed schools Friday in at least 11 states to check them for safety.

The earthquake hit off Chiapas near the Guatemalan border with a magnitude of 8.1 —equal to Mexico’s strongest of the past century. It was slightly stronger than the 1985 quake, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

The epicenter was in a seismic hotspot in the Pacific where one tectonic plate dives under another. These so-called subduction zones are responsible for producing some of the biggest quakes in history, including the 2011 Fukushima disaster and the 2004 Sumatra quake that spawned a deadly tsunami.

Oaxaca Gov. Alejandro Murat told local news media that at least 23 people had died in his coastal state. Civil defense officials said at least seven died in Chiapas and two others in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco.

The USGS recorded at least 20 aftershocks of magnitude 4.0 or greater within about five hours of the main shake, and the president warned that a major aftershock as large as magnitude 7.2 could occur.

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