Inside the offices for the Mexican Consulate in Philadelphia, the emotions of the staff grew as television images showed collapsed buildings, rescue workers in chaos, and tearful families looking for relatives lost in the ruins of the 7.1 earthquake in central Mexico.
With the disaster unfolding Wednesday, more than 1,000 miles away, families across the Philadelphia region worried about their loved ones in Mexico City and the surrounding areas. Donations to the Red Cross, specifically for Mexico, which can be made online, is the quickest way to get money into the country, officials said.
“It’s hard to see what is going on in my country,” said Consul Alicia G. Kerber-Palma, describing how workers in her office quickly contacted their families, relieved to know all were safe. They then turned their attention toward helping others. Wednesday, they received calls and emails from people offering help and others trying to obtain information. “There has been a lot of expression of solidarity.”
From Camden, to South Philadelphia, to Norristown — areas with significant numbers of residents of Mexican hertitage — many of the fears turned to relief as they located family and friends. Just as quickly, the communities came together with fund-raising and prayers.
For Kerber-Palma some images were particularly hard to see. Footage of the school that crumbled in Mexico City where more than two dozen children died brought back disturbing images from when she was attending graduate school at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1985. That’s when the country’s largest quake struck on the same date and killed thousands.
Then in her 20s, Kerber-Palma and her friends were running home unsure what was happening. When they passed a school building that crumbled, they realized the horror that struck.
Kerber-Palma said anyone in the area who needs help from the consulate office can reach out online, by phone, (215-266-3740), or through social media.
“That’s what good neighbors do. We help each other,” the consul said Wednesday, admitting she wished there was more she could do. It’s part of her heritage, or as she put it, “It’s in our blood.”
Eva Hernandez, 42, of South Philadelphia is the owner of Chocolate: Arts & Crafts. Born in Mexico, she was in shock over Tuesday’s earthquake.
“Even though my family is OK, it still hurts,” said Hernandez who also was living in Mexico City for the 1985 quake, triggering difficult memories. “I know how they feel. I want them to know they’re not alone. We’re doing something, we’re proud of them. We are Mexico.”
Hernandez and other business owners plan to donate money and record uplifting messages to send to those impacted by the earthquake.
“We have to do something for them,” she said.
Down the street at Mole Poblano, waiter Alex Coronado, 18, said he and co-workers were in the back kitchen Tuesday when one of them got a call.
“We were speechless,” Coronado said. They immediately turned to their phones to watch Univision or Telemundo. And then they prayed.
Coronado said his coworkers’ families are OK. He has grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles in Mexico and said, “I’m trying to talk to family members tonight.”
Karina Hererra, a waitress at San Lucas Mexican Restaurant in Camden, heard the breaking news alert on television Tuesday while working. Herrera immediately called her 17-year-old brother who lives in Mexico City. No answer. She grew more desperate with unanswered call after unanswered call, and no response through WhatsApp, a messaging app her family uses to communicate between the U.S. and Mexico.
“You have no idea how scared I was. I was crying. I didn’t know what to do with myself,” Herrera said in a brief phone interview Wednesday.
Finally at 10 p.m. Tuesday her brother messaged on WhatsApp that he was OK and not injured.
Her brother had just left his 12-floor apartment to go to work. About to get on his motorcycle, he felt the ground shake, and ran back inside. The windows shattered, but there was no apparent structural damage, Herrera said.
“He was so scared,” she said. They are still using WhatsApp to stay in touch while telephone and electrical lines remain down. Others she was worried about, including her mother and sister in nearby Puebla, also have been located and are safe, she said.
At the University of Pennsylvania, the Mexican Student Association raised more than $18,000 in less than a day on a site through gofundme called “This One’s For MEXICO.” The organization posted, “We stand together in shock as our loved ones struggle to recover from a devastating disaster. We ask that you stand with us.” The money will go to the Red Cross in Mexico, the group said.
At St. Patrick’s Church, 714 DeKalb St., in Norristown, Montgomery County, a special mass is scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m. to pray for those in Mexico and Puerto Rico who were battered by Hurricane Maria. The parish is home to hundreds of Mexican immigrants, many from Puebla and Puerto Rico. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia said a collection will be taken up for hurricane and earthquake victims and continued relief efforts.
“May God protect those who are suffering from the earthquakes in Mexico and the hurricane in Puerto Rico,” the church posted on its Facebook page. “And for those who have lost their lives, may they rest in the arms of the Good Shepherd. Condolences to family and friends of those who have been lost.”
Staff writer Claudia Vargas contributed to this article.