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Lessons Learned: USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and the 1985 Mexico City Earthquake

USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) is perhaps the world’s premier international disaster assistance agency.  It was not always that way. OFDA administrator Oliver “Ollie” Davidson knows this better than most. OFDA’s response to the devastating 1985 Mexico City earthquake was ernest and energetic, but not always well-targeted.  In his oral history, Davidson recalls some hard lessons learned.

Davidson entered OFDA, a bureau within USAID, only a few years after it was created in the aftermath of the 1963 earthquake in former Yugoslavia.  The failure of international response efforts during that disaster led the United States to create a central coordinating office within USAID that could respond quickly, effectively, and on a massive scale.  Davidson helped coordinate OFDA’s response during a major challenge to the young organization: the 1985 Mexico City earthquake.

The 8.0 magnitude earthquake caused nearly four billion dollars in damage to Mexico’s capital city, and took the lives of thousands of people.  Though Mexico City had particularly rigorous building codes, enacted after earthquakes in 1957 and 1973, these safeguards proved woefully inadequate to prepare the city for a seismic event as destructive as that of 1985.  In addition to the immediate toll of death and destruction, Mexico City faced enormous challenges in the days following the quake. The number of people with access to potable water dropped from six million to 90,000. Forty percent of the population was without electricity, and seventy percent had no telephone service.  Hundreds of schools collapsed, and hundreds of thousands lost their jobs.

Facing this crisis, the OFDA sprang into action as best it could.  Although it did not yet have much experience with disasters of this magnitude, a few protocols were in place. OFDA worked in conjunction with the FBI, the military, and several volunteer organizations to provide aid to Mexico City.  OFDA did a lot of good, but as Davidson candidly recalls, it made mistakes as well. In the end, OFDA led the American disaster response, and learned tough lessons that made it a better agency.

Drafted by Sabrina Rostkowski

Oliver Davidson’s interview was conducted by John Pielemeier on January 21, 2018 and January 28, 2018.

Read Oliver Davidson’s full oral history HERE.

“Well it turned out when we added it all up, we sent about 147 people to Mexico City with no management.”

Organizing a Response and Volunteers: We gathered around the operations table discussing what we were going to do and how we were going to do it. The big problem with any disaster is figuring out what happened, how serious, and what was the niche the U.S. government could provide. One of the early innovations of this young group of OFDA staff was to try to transition the disaster assistance response team, often a military team because they were the people who were on standby all the time all over the world. When I got to OFDA, the disaster assistance recon team, or assessment team, was mostly military people with senior OFDA staff leading it. Well, we were civilians and we wanted civilian technical people who we could have a relationship with for a long time, so we wanted to develop this disaster assistance response team. We started putting together the criteria, the papers, etc. to put together a civilian team of people that had the skills that we needed to do the relief work. But we hadn’t gotten there yet. In 1985, when the Mexico City earthquake occurred, we put together the best team we could find, but some of the reactions were very interesting.

First, we didn’t really know what the need was and we were getting many requests. One of them was for helicopters that could fight fires. The Forest Service has helicopters which drop retardant and so we got a huge military aircraft and put on some helicopters and we sent it to Mexico City. It was a massive waste of money because by the time it was all assembled and got down there, there weren’t any fires. They could still use the helicopters to do some reconnaissance. The best thing that we did was to send members of the National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR). They were meeting in Nashville and had rescue dogs and rescue specialists, all meeting with this nonprofit national organization. They kept calling and calling and saying, “We can help, we can help, we can help.” Well, we didn’t know what they could do and we didn’t know what kind of help was really needed down there, but there were people trapped and these were dogs that could go into the rubble and smell humans, hopefully live people not just bodies. Eventually we said, “Okay we’ll send an aircraft.” We picked up a group of these rescue people and sent them to Mexico City. The Metro-Dade Fire Service Spanish speakers-were going out on their days off and training people in the mostly Spanish-speaking countries on fire fighting and rescue and in the airport rescue. We decided that the fire service had the depth of people that we really needed, so the OFDA ended up in a Cooperative Agreement with the Metro-Dade Fire Service. This was in early 1985. They were coming and going on mission to various Latin American countries when the Mexico City earthquake hit. We immediately sent a Metro-Dade rescue team headed by some of the firefighters to Mexico City. Well it turned out when we added it all up, we sent about 147 people to Mexico City with no management.

“Then the City of Los Angeles called up and said, ‘We’re collecting heavy equipment to send to Mexico City because Los Angeles and Mexico City are sister cities.’ They wanted us to help facilitate it.”

Working with Other Agencies: There were many USG agencies working in Mexico. In Mexico City there was enough of an FBI contingent that they managed the warehouse of all the earthquake relief supplies coming in! Everything we sent in got cataloged by the FBI and then it was released when requested by the Mexicans or by our rescue teams or whatever. One of the earliest public-private operations was with Continental Airlines, which was flying into Mexico. They offered to fly any piece of legitimate (requested) equipment, not trailers and bulldozers and things, but small pieces of things into Mexico City for free. Groups or companies who wanted to donate requested items could take jackhammers, saws, cutting tools, etc. to any Continental office in the United States, they would put it on an aircraft. They would rendezvous — I think it was out of Houston — and would fly it from Houston to Mexico City. The FBI would take possession of that and when somebody needed that, they would release it. That was probably the first public-private partnership and Continental Airlines was just wonderful. We were in contact with them every day, every hour of every day, and it was really an amazing operation.

Then the City of Los Angeles called up and said, “We’re collecting heavy equipment to send to Mexico City because Los Angeles and Mexico City are sister cities.” They wanted us to help facilitate it. We had good contacts in California and we had good contacts in Texas, and we brokered it with the U.S. embassy, which coordinated with the Mexican government. The Mexicans received 67 train car loads of equipment from Los Angeles that came down by rail to Mexico City! These were bulldozers, dump trucks, backhoes, 67 train car loads! It was the most amazing thing.

“Look you sent us down there with no equipment, no agreements, no health care, no emergency provisions. You just sent us in and we were happy to go because we were volunteers, but you can’t run a professional disaster operation like that again.”

“A Huge Learning Experience:” There were lots of interesting lessons out of Mexico. One of the lessons was in OFDA where managers worked a 12-hour shift with a couple hours overlap with your replacement. I worked 12 and the next guy worked 12, but there’s an hour overlap in the beginning and in the end. I was doing the day shift when we got a call from somebody in Texas who said they had a whole lot of equipment and wanted to donate to Mexico. When I left my day shift, I told one of the senior fellows to check out this offer of assistance and, if it was legitimate, begin to move it with the Defense Department aircraft because it was the only aircraft that was big enough to carry it. When I came back in the next morning, I asked Fred Cole, “Fred, what’s the status of the offer of equipment from Texas? He said, “Oh I’ve got it ready to move. It’s going to take five C-5A aircraft. That’s the biggest aircraft the Air Force has, C-5A. I said, “Well, did you check with such and such and such and such just to make sure everything was legitimate and did somebody go out and inspect the equipment before you sent it?” He said, “Oh, I thought you said ‘Move it.’” “No, Fred, I said evaluate it. A Huge difference!” When we checked, it turned out it was a lady, and she was crazy. She was calling up and offering all these things, and she had nothing, not a thing! This is the importance of the written word. This was a lesson we included in the procedures and processes we were developing and expanding. After that we had much stricter procedures about operational information, writing things down!

Another lesson of Mexico City was also that the media portrayed all of Mexico City as having been impacted by the earthquake, when in fact it was a narrow strip in the center of Mexico City and a lot of the rest of Mexico City was not touched. The limited impact meant that relief supplies and equipment could come from nearby places in Mexico or the City. Also the people living in those areas that were not impacted were not in danger. They weren’t killed and they weren’t injured. The lesson was, if you precisely describe where the disaster is, you reduce the number of phone calls from the public who could think that everybody in Mexico City and everybody’s aunt and uncle has perished! After that we emphasized when the media is focused on the impact, focus it on the exact place.

The Mexico City earthquake response was a huge learning experience. When the rescue teams came back and the Metro-Dade fire/rescue people came back, we brought them all together to do a lessons learned summary. They were really hard on us. They said, “Look you sent us down there with no equipment, no agreements, no health care, no emergency provisions. You just sent us in and we were happy to go because we were volunteers, but you can’t run a professional disaster operation like that again.”




     BA in Political Science, Baldwin Wallace College                                              1960-1966

     MA in Latin American Studies, Georgetown University                                  1970-1973


Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                  1966

     South Vietnam—Development Programming, USAID                                     1966-1969

     Washington, DC—Assistant Action Officer, OFDA                                           1978-1980

     Washington, DC—Director of Operations, OFDA                                             1980-2001