Natural Disasters

Vulnerability and Resilience: Disaster Profile of Mexico 2022 | by Muskan Shah | Feb, 2024

Image by National Geographic

Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, is the fifth most populated city in the world. It has a population of more than 131,000,000 people and a population density of more than 6,000 people per square kilometres (Teresa Romero & 10, 2022). The tertiary sector is well developed, bringing in more than 60% of the GDP. It is followed by the secondary and then the primary sector. Mexico is among the top countries when it comes to exports of several products like coffee, citrus, avocados, beer, sugar and corn to name a few. Majority of the income comes from remittances from Mexicans immigrated to the United States and is followed by oil, since it is the eight largest exporter of oil in the world (Mexico: Economic and political outline). Mexico is quite prone to natural disasters, having the highest risk out of any Latin American city. Geographically, Mexico is located along the Ring of Fire, which is the origin for a large majority of the natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. Due to its location between the oceans and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, during the months of May- November, there are more than 20 hurricanes with speeds greater than 60 kmph which hit Mexico (Sinead.harvey).

Susceptibility to Disasters

Since the main Mexico city is densely populated and the rest of the state is still considered to be underdeveloped, any disaster that occurs puts the population at a greater risk. The natural disasters prominently affecting Mexico include hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

In the last 3 years, from 2019–2021, there have been disastrous hurricanes causing damage every year. In 2019, there was Hurricane Lorena, which had winds gowing up to 120 kmph, and brought along with it mudslides and heavy rainfalls that caused floods 8 inches high. This hurricane came along with the Tropical Storm Mario (Jenner, 2019). The two disasters combined resulted in a massive loss, not only ruining the agricultural sector, but even causing monetary loss of more than $50 million dollars. In 2020, there was Hurricane Genevieve, a category 4 hurricane which did not make landfall in Mexico, but caused strong winds, floods and even claimed 6 lives (Hurricane Genevieve to brush baja california peninsula late Wednesday). In 2021, came Hurricane Pamela and Hurricane Grace, both massive storms. Hurricane Pamela caused power outages and also floods and strong winds when it made landfall on Mexicos west coast in October, while Hurricane Grace also had the same effects and also claimed several lives (Hurricane Pamela makes landfall in Mexico; The New York Times, 2021). All the citizens of Mexico are exposed to the ill effects brought on by the intensity and frequency of the disaster which is the hurricane. Since it is a country prone to this disaster, all the occupants of the country, locals and tourists are vulnerable to loss of personal belongings and harm to their own health. The risk factor is greater in this case as they are surrounded by water bodies, meaning that they are more likely than inhabitants of other countries to be subjected to not only the disaster but even what comes next (floods, strong winds and so on).

The Imperial Fault Zone that cuts across the Mexican and United States of America’s border along with the fact that Mexico falls in a subduction zone, makes it extremely prone to earthquakes. Every year, Mexico is subjected to an average of 30,000 earthquakes. From this number, more than seven and a half thousand earthquakes hit the state of Guerrero (Karina Suárez, 2021).There have been several megathrust earthquakes which have shaken Mexico to its roots. The most recent earthquake of this kind occured in September of 2017, with a magnitude of 8.2, and was named as the Chiapas or the Tehuantepec earthquake . Less than 2 weeks after this earthquake, while the country was still recovering, on the 19th of September, another earthquake of magnitude of 7.1. (Mexico earthquakes 2022). The earthquake was followed by a tsunami with waves going higher than a metre and also

(Godínez-Domínguez et al., 2021). The megathrust earthquake was caused by a continental plate overriding the Cocos plate, which actually shocked scientists as an earthquake so powerful had nit occurred like this since 1787 (Mexico’s 2017 tehuantepec quake suggests a new worry 2018). There were 2 million people affected and over 100 died as a result of both the earthquakes. There were tens of thousands of homes destroyed and the extent of the damage was so vast that international aid also had to be called in. Since such an earthquake was thought to no longer be possible, the risk and vulnerability factor was higher, as those thought to be living in comparatively safer parts of Mexico were also subjected to loss of personal property and danger to their health as a result of this hazard.

The National Centre for Disaster Prevention has said that there are a total of 48 active volcanoes in Mexico. From this number, the Popocatépetl volcano, which lies just 70km southeast of the highly populated Mexico City, had recently erupted on 9th January, 2020. The stratovolcano spewed up ash and gases several kilometres, however no one was hurt. Due to it’s active nature, there were no occupants nearby, reducing the risk and vulnerability factor of this disaster (Popocatépetl: Mexican volcano’s spectacular eruption caught on camera). Mexico is also home to one of the youngest volcanoes on earth, the Paricutín volcano, which first erupted in 1943 (Paricutín).

Due to these natural disasters, there have been many impacts on weather conditions as well, causing not only severe heat, but also winter storms.In 2021, there was a winter storm caused by the interaction between cold dry Canadian air and the moist and worm air mass from the Gulf of Mexico. Temperatures dropped down to an all time low, and also was considered to be the most expensive winter in Mexico. The people of Mexico were particularly vulnerable to the unexpected temperatures and faced the risk of losing power for hours and having pipelines burst, cutting off households access to water supply (Wire, 2021).

In terms of man made disasters, there are several issues with forest fires. Mexican farmers use a slash and burn technique to clear leftover plat material and weeds to prepare areas of land for further cultivation. They light the materials on fire which then further spread due to strong winds, rising temperatures and dry weather. Before they know it, the fires have spread uncontrollably burning forest cover. This is quite an issue as Mexico is in the top 10 countries in terms of forest cover, with 18% of its land covered. In the month of April, in 2012, local authorities found an illegal dump, where garbage was being burnt by corporations. The fire spread and was the worst forest fire at La Primavera in the last 7 years. It burnt about a third of the pack and demolished 8,500 ha of land in Jalisco (Vizzuality, Jalisco, Mexico deforestation rates & statistics: GFW).

Disaster Response By Authorities

A disaster management system has 5 steps- prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. The first step is prevention. In order to recover from a disaster, the best way to do so would be to prevent it in the first place, by recovering potential hazards and planning mitigation methods. In Mexico, the water management system is a factor that plays a crucial role in the intensity of the floods. Fixing the drainage system would help in ensuring that the floods are not as deadly. The same could apply for volcanoes- creating a zone where civillians are not allowed in the blast radius would mitigate the impact on eruption. The next is mitigation. The weak structures of the buildings make them more susceptible to breaking down even after the smaller earthquakes hit. Creating more rigid building codes could help mitigate this and Mexico’s City Building Codes are amongst the most comprehensive and advanced in the country.. Recently the Torre Mayor skyscraper constructed in the Mexico City had 98 shock absorbers which could withstand up to 900 tonnes of dynamite. Then comes preparedness. In terms of this step, there are applications and warning systems that warn all inhabitants- tourists and civillians- of the oncoming disaster, be it a hurricane or earthquake. In a country where this is nearly a weekly occurence, the citizens are equipped with the knowledge regarding what to do in case of any of these disasters striking. In terms of response and recovery, Mexico has set up funds and federal agencies which can help financially and also in person in case of any occurence of a natural or man-made disaster.

In a country that is so profoundly affected by and vulnerable to natural disasters, the government has established the Fund for Natural Disasters- FONDEN. After the disastrous 1985 earthquake, which killed tens of thousands of people, this fund was set in place, taking 14 years to become fully operational. The financing comes from the Mexican federal budget and risk transfer instruments like the catastrophe (CAT) bonds as well as insurance. These funds can be used for the rebuilding of government infrastructure, housing (specifically low income housing) and components of the environment. The FONDEN is divided into two parts, there is a program specifically for reconstruction and rehabilitation and there is another program for only prevention, which is called the FOPREDEN progra,. This program finds the processes of assessing various risks, working to reduce those risks and increasing the capacity building. In terms of funds, FONDEN is elligible to atleast 0.4% of the annual federal budget and there are even laws in place to ensure this. This means that the fund received atleast a few hundred million US dollars. On the other hand, the FOPREDEN program has only about $25 million US dollars as it is primarily funded by the Mexican state owned government bank (Mexico’s natural disaster fund — a review 2020). The Federal Emergency Management Agency helps civilians before and after a disaster has occured. They help the citizens rebuild, respond and recover from any and all hazards and disasters. They also help prepare for any disaster that might occur. (Natural disaster response and recovery 2018)


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