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Thousands Volunteer After Mexico's Earthquake, But Are There Too Many?

Mexico Earthquake
Jorge Valencia
Volunteers at a donation center in the Miguel Hidalgo borough in western Mexico City.

People folded boxes, filled them with canned food and wrapped them with packing tape in more than two dozen donation centers in the day following a 7.1-magnitude earthquake that rattled central Mexico this week.

At a donation center in western Mexico City, hundreds of volunteers showed up. Among them, Miguel Iturbe, a lawyer and a volunteer.

Iturbe said he was frustrated some of the goods may not have been going where they were the most needed.

So, Iturbe began checking where the boxes were being delivered and calling those locations to confirm what type of supplies they needed - from water to food to medical supplies. He said he wanted to send supplies to locations that most needed them.

“There’s been a lot of help but very little coordination,” Iturbe said. “There’s been a lot of noise on social media, and people have been running around aimlessly.”

After the earthquake struck in Tuesday, resulting in a death toll of at least 250, thousands volunteered to help. Ordinary citizens volunteered to dig through rubble for survivors while others brought water, food and medical supplies to disaster areas. But officials struggled to channel the outpouring of support.

Edmundo Cruz, a local government official in charge of the donation in the Miguel Hidalgo borough in western Mexico City, said most volunteers where figuring out what to do when they arrived.

“Coordinating more than 300 people whom you’ve just met and who don’t listen to you is not easy,” Cruz said.

But: “The more the merrier,” he added. “Mexico needs us.”

Mirna Núñez, a therapist who showed up to offer counseling, said it was very important for volunteers to be able to feel useful.

“It’s better to channel that energy, to turn people’s own fear about what happened into support,” Núñez said.

But the operation was so chaotic that even Nunez left without finding a single person she could help. She didn’t meet 47-year-old Leonel Polanco, his wife and their two daughters. They showed up looking for shelter but nobody was there to help them, Polanco said.

Polanco walked around cradling a statue of Baby Jesus and a bag full of clothes, water and food. Polanco said he and his family didn’t want to sleep in their apartment building out of fear it would collapse overnight.

“We’re just going to accept whatever happens,” said one of his daughters, 17-year-old Fatima Polanco.

Meanwhile, volunteers continued to ship out boxes. But at one of the worst-hit buildings across town, workers stopped receiving boxes. They put up a signs.

They said: “Thank you. We’re full.”

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Jorge Valencia joined KJZZ in August 2016 as the station's first senior field correspondent based in Mexico City. His reporting focuses on the business and economics between Arizona and Mexico.Valencia previously covered the North Carolina statehouse in Raleigh for North Carolina Public Radio. He reported on a controversial law that curtailed protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people, and on voting rights and environmental policy issues. He also reported on the shooting of three Arab-American students, traveling to Turkey's border with Syria to report on a project the students had started to help Syrian refugees.Valencia began his journalism career covering crime for the Roanoke Times of Virginia and in internships with newspapers including the Wall Street Journal. He has been the recipient of multiple journalism awards for his work in radio and in newspapers. Valencia studied journalism at the University of Maryland and grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, and the suburbs of Washington, D.C.