JUCHITAN, Mexico — The Catholic priest waited out the earthquake in his spartan quarters, praying that the walls would stand. When he stepped out alone into the colonial courtyard late Thursday, his place of worship had transformed into a ghoulish scene of destruction.
He took in the shattered bell tower, collapsed church walls, two cars pancaked under the rubble. Across the plaza, school classrooms had been flattened. A few blocks away, city hall lay in ruins.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Lucio Santiago Santiago, 58, the priest at the San Vicente Ferrer church, its foundation dating to the 16th century, in the city that endured some of the most extreme damage from Mexico’s massive earthquake. Within minutes, he said, residents were screaming and shouting about the dead. “It was chaos.”
“This is a historic temple dear to the people’s heart,” Santiago said. “And look at it now.”
In this city that has recorded more than half of the earthquake’s fatalities, residents on Saturday had turned to the work of mourning the dead and cleaning up the wreckage. Teams of rescue workers with search dogs worked their way through the rubble looking for possible survivors while construction workers with backhoes and dump trucks cleared debris. Soldiers and police had sealed off several blocks around the city square while funeral processions passed amid downed power lines and broken glass. At least 36 people are known to have died here.
On Friday night, President Enrique Peña Nieto said that in Juchitan, a city of about 100,000 people in the state of Oaxaca, a third of homes either collapsed or were left uninhabitable by the earthquake. In block after block, there are houses with crumbled concrete walls or collapsed ceramic-tile roofs. Peña Nieto declared a three-day period of national mourning and vowed to help rebuild. By Saturday, the country’s total death toll had risen to 65 people.
The 8.2-magnitude earthquake that began a few minutes before midnight Thursday was centered in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s southwestern coast. The rumbling was felt for hundreds of miles and caused buildings to sway in Mexico City. But the damage to lives and property was clustered in southern states such Oaxaca, Chiapas and Tabasco.
Residents in Juchitan are now sleeping outside: in their patios, in the street, or in makeshift hammock camps in parks and plazas. The injured are being treated in the hospital or in clinics converted into triage centers.
Martin Toral Nolasco, a 45-year-old chiropractor who runs a small clinic, said he had helped treat residents with broken arms and legs.
Toral, who is sleeping with his family in the patio of his house, said that because of aftershocks, many residents are afraid to sleep in damaged houses. Prices are skyrocketing in the stores that remain open, he said, as is the cost of a taxi. He said he worries about robberies and possible looting.
“We are starting to see shortages of food,” Toral said.
“It’s about to explode.”
Outside the city, on the road along the coast from the tourist town of Huatulco, residents worked to repair damage, fixing broken windows, repairing roofs and clearing away small landslides or scattered boulders that had spilled onto the road.
But the earthquake seemed to have concentrated its furies in Juchitan and surrounding towns in the isthmus region in Oaxaca, where Mexico’s waist narrows.
Even as recovery began, Mexico was forced to juggle another emergency, as Hurricane Katia made landfall Friday night along the Gulf Coast, in the state of Veracruz. At least two people died in a mudslide from the storm, which blasted the coastline with 75 mph winds, according to the state governor. Several thousands had evacuated the area.