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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

A double blow for Mexico — a deadly earthquake and Hurricane Katia 

Hardest-hit was the city of Juchitan, where 36 people died and a third of the city's homes collapsed or were rendered uninhabitable

A street in Juchitan, southern Mexico, on September 8, 2017, a day after  the 8.1 magnitude earthquake that struck on September  7, 2017. Edgard Garrido / Reuters
A street in Juchitan, southern Mexico, on September 8, 2017, a day after the 8.1 magnitude earthquake that struck on September 7, 2017. Edgard Garrido / Reuters

Police, soldiers and emergency workers raced to rescue survivors from the ruins of Mexico's most powerful earthquake in a century, which killed at least 61 people, as storm Katia menaced the country's eastern coast on Saturday with heavy rains.

In the southern region which was hardest hit, emergency workers searched for survivors -- or bodies -- in the rubble of houses, churches and schools that were torn apart in the 8.1-magnitude earthquake. More than 200 people across the country were injured.

Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto said 45 people were killed in Oaxaca state, 12 in Chiapas and four in Tabasco. But the actual death toll could be more than 80, according to figures reported by state officials.

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Meanwhile Hurricane Katia made landfall in the east as a Category One hurricane and hours later was downgraded to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 70 kilometres per hour. The US National Hurricane Centre said Katia was halting over Mexico's Sierra Madre mountains, where it could bring 25 to 37 centimetres of rain to a region with a history of deadly mudslides and flooding.

Katia lashed the state of Veracruz, which borders the Gulf of Mexico, as well as parts of Hidalgo and Puebla. Forecasters were predicting the storm could unleash upward of 64 centimetres of rain in some areas.

In Tecolutla, a coastal town of 8,000 residents, the streets were littered with felled trees and branches as families hunkered down to weather the storm.

The government warned that Katia could threaten about one million people and unleash dangerous floods.

Adding to the concerns, the authorities warned another massive aftershock could follow within 24 hours of the first earthquake.

President Pena Nieto toured the hardest-hit city, Juchitan in Oaxaca, where at least 36 bodies were pulled from the ruins. The city's eerily quiet streets were a maze of rubble, with roofs, cables, insulation and concrete chunks scattered everywhere.

A crowd had formed at Juchitan's partially collapsed town hall, a Spanish colonial building where two policemen were trapped in the rubble.

Rescuers managed to extract one and were still working to save the other 18 hours after the quake, using four cranes and a fleet of lorries to remove what remains of the building's crumbled wing.Teams found bodies in the rubble, but also pulled out four people, including two children, from the completely collapsed Hotel Del Rio, where one woman died.

His blue uniform covered in dust, Vidal Vera, 29, was one of around 300 police officers digging through the rubble. He hadn't slept in more than 36 hours.

"I can't remember an earthquake this terrible," he said. "The whole city is a disaster zone right now. Lots of damage. Lots of deaths. I don't know how you can make sense of it. It's hard. My sister-in-law's husband died. His house fell on top of him."

Families dragged mattresses outside to spend a second anxious night sleeping in the open air. Some had just been made 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."

— Record quake —

A hotel mostly collapsed and many homes were badly damaged in the predominantly indigenous town of 100,000 people, which is tucked into the lush green southern mountains near the coast.

The governor said tens of thousands of ration packs, blankets and cleaning kits were arriving, along with 100 federal police reinforcements with rescue dogs to search for people in the wreckage.

"The priority in Juchitan is to restore water and food supplies and provide medical attention to those affected," President Pena Nieto tweeted after visiting the devastated town.

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More than 1.8 million people lost power, at least briefly, and schools were closed for safety reasons in at least 11 states. The Interior Department reported that 428 homes were destroyed and 1,700 were damaged just in Chiapas, the state closest to the epicentre.

"Homes made of clay tiles and wood collapsed," said Nataniel Hernandez, a human rights worker living in Tonala, Chiapas. "Right now it is raining very hard in Tonala, and with the rains it gets much more complicated because the homes were left very weak, with cracks."

The earthquake is the strongest recorded in Mexico in the last century and even stronger than a devastating 1985 earthquake that killed more than 10,000 people in Mexico City.

In Tabasco, two children were among the dead. One was crushed by a collapsing wall. Another, an infant on a respirator, died after the tremors triggered a power outage.

Pope Francis, at an open air mass on a visit to Colombia, said he was praying "for those who have lost their lives and their families" in the disaster.

— Surging waves —

The epicentre of the earthquake, which struck late on Thursday, was in the Pacific Ocean, about 100 kilometres off the town of Tonala in Chiapas.

Mexico's seismology service estimated it at 8.2 magnitude while the US Geological Survey put it at 8.1 — the same as in 1985. It was felt as far north as Mexico City — some 800 kilometres from the epicentre -- where people fled their homes, many in their pyjamas, after hearing sirens go off.

Officials initially issued a tsunami alert, but later lifted it. However, the earthquake triggered waves that reached as far as New Zealand, more than 11,000 kilometres away.

Authorities said small tsunami waves of up to 40 centimetres were recorded on the far-flung Chatham Islands, with 25 centimetre surges on the New Zealand coast, some 15 hours after the quake.

Mexico sits atop five tectonic plates, making it prone to earthquakes, and has two long coastlines that are frequently battered by hurricanes.

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