When Mexico’s worst earthquake for a century struck late on Thursday night, Juan Carlos Sanchez and his wife had time only to bundle their children out of their one room shack before the walls collapsed around them.
The following day, they cannot pause even to pick their broken belongings from the rubble. Their seaside home trembles beneath their feet every half hour with aftershock tremors, and with the threat of a second equally large earthquake looming, they must retreat inland, alongside four hundred thousand other coastal residents in Chiapas state.
“It was worse than a bomb,” he told the Telegraph, standing beside the wrecked wall he had built only six months before. “We are poor, and everything we have has been crushed. We can only thank God that our children are safe, but now we have nowhere to go”.
Mr Sanchez and his family are residents of Cabeza de Toro, a beach settlement less than a thousand kilometres from the 8.1-magnitude earthquake’s epicentre.
As the sun rose over the Pacific Ocean on Friday morning, its residents were met with scenes of destruction on its neglected streets. Quickly informed that their town was no longer a safe place to be, by both government announcement and the aftershocks which shake the ground every half hour, the town’s fifty thousand residents began to move.
Moving twenty miles inland to the relative safety of Tonala, the coast’s residents used any means possible to distance themselves from the sea – stuffed unceremoniously into military wagons by Mexican soldiers deployed to their aid, four-person families balancing precariously on a speeding motorbike – the family’s only vehicle – or sharing standing space alongside docile cattle in farm wagons.
Once safety is reached inland, the earthquake’s refugees have nowhere to go. Carrying only what they could salvage, they spend these humid late-summer nights sleeping in their adopted town’s central square. Those who got here early reserved the bandstand and jealously guard it.
“It was terrifying, I thought it was the end of the world”, said Marta Sanchez, who fled with her four sons before the sun had come up over her ruined house. “We stood outside embracing one another and praying for it to stop shaking.
“There are regular earthquakes here in this part of Mexico, but I have never felt anything like that before”, she said. “We will not go back until we are certain that the danger has passed. I won’t risk my family’s life over a destroyed house”.
Chiapas is Mexico’s most impoverished state. Bordering Guatemala, the region is heavily populated by indigenous tribes who complain that Mexico’s federal government cares little about their situation.
“It’s no one’s fault, but there is no infrastructure here to deal with this sort of natural disaster”, said Jose Guadeloupe, a civil protection officer charged with overseeing the removal of the significant landslides caused by the tremor from the federal motorway.
The earthquake’s most recent death toll counts at least 51 dead and thousands more injured.
The United States has offered aid to Mexican response teams, an offer many say is thanks to America’s southern neighbour helping unasked with the recent Houston floods recovery. “The hospitals are under-staffed as it is”, said Mr Guadeloupe, “but if there’s one things Mexicans know how to do, it’s to make room”.
Yet as the exodus away from Mexico’s Pacific coast continues, not every resident of Cabeza de Toro is convinced about abandoning their homes. “I’m staying, I’m 68-years-old and don’t want to sleep rough in a town I don’t know”, said Maria Chavez, looking at the ruins of her beach-side palm frond restaurant.
“I was scared at first, but I began to look at it like my husband”, she says with typical Mexican stoicism, “if it’s your time, what’s the point of fighting it?”