Sokolof, whose wife has family living in the country, visited Mexico back in January, and just seven months later, large swaths of the country were reduced to rubble.
“Just seeing the images on television and [my wife] not being able to get through to families, I thought maybe I could go and help,” he said.
Though his extended family was safe, Sokolof decided to help anyway and on Sept. 21 landed in Mexico City. The country had experienced another earthquake on Sept. 19 — a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that badly damaged central Mexico and the states of Morelos and Puebla where at least 216 people died.
President Enrique Penia Nieto said the 8.2 magnitude earthquake on Sept. 8, 2017, was the largest and most powerful the country has seen in 100 years — even compared to the deadly 8.1 magnitude quake that hit Mexico City in 1985, killing 10,000 people.
Instead of staying in Mexico City, where relief efforts where already underway, Sokolof decided to travel several hours to areas that had not seen as much government aid. He raised almost $2,000 from friends and family through a GoFundMe account and purchased supplies like hygiene products and canned food.
Sokolof also bought construction gloves, respirator masks, LED lights and more for volunteers who were helping with cleanup efforts and to pull people from the rubble. He traveled to towns like San Antonio Alpanocan and Tochimilco in the state of Puebla, and Jojutla and Hueyapan in the state of Morelos.
“Everything is destroyed,” he said. “The majority of every town’s structures are damaged. It looked like bombs hit these areas.”
Sokolof said people in the hard hit areas were sleeping under makeshift tents and were desperate for supplies including medication and the most basic resources like water.
“I thought that by now the Mexican government would be responsive and involved,” he said. “At this point they still need everything — the basic food, water, medicine and now they need psychological help, too. A lot of them are affected and traumatized by what happened.”
Relief efforts in places like Jojutla are almost exclusively coordinated by local volunteers and young people driving to town in caravans. The volunteers also do not have proper tools for excavation but are trying to do what they can to help.
“It smells of death,” Sokolof said in a video posted on Facebook. “Volunteers are basically taking us through the worst parts and they have no tools. They have no machinery. They’re basically pulling bodies out of the rubble by hand. They’re ripping walls with their hands, with ropes and with metal saws.”
He also said he was inspired to see groups like Lazos en Acción and Volunteer Brigade 55 in action.
“I can’t also forget how inspiring it was to see the caravans of volunteers on the remote roads riding out into these ancient towns and villages to help their people and leave their jobs and responsibilities behind,” Sokoloff told QNS.
Some roads have been considerably weakened after the earthquakes, causing volunteers to take alternative routes or completely cancel trips for fear of collapsing roads.
“A lot of the pueblos up in the mountains were already cobblestone or very badly paved roads so there was a lot of obstruction,” he said. “Some roads were so damaged that we were told not to visit those towns so that we did not contribute to cutting them off.”
It has also been reported that since elections are coming up, government officials have been taking supplies from volunteers and distributing them to specific constituents to ensure they receive votes.
“I saw one road blocked near Morelos’ main highway,” Sokolof said. “They have huge trucks taking all the donations from the volunteers and saying, ‘We’re gonna store it in these warehouses. We know where other towns need it more than you guys.'”
Sokolof said residents are mistrustful of the government and are used to “having to deal with things on their own” but still want to see more action.
“It’s kind of just aid groups coming in and filling the gaps,” he said. “It’s not enough.”
As of earlier this month, the death toll had risen to 369 people, CBS News reported. Sokolof, who kept in touch with people on the ground, said residents have started getting desperate and depressed and some have reportedly committed suicide.
According to Sokolof, some Mexicans, aware of how long the recovery process would take, said things like, “You guys are here now, but in three months people are going to forget that this happened and we’re gonna be struggling for years.”
Sokolof, a graduate student at Baruch College, said he is planning another trip to Mexico within the next few months and would also like to visit Puerto Rico to help with hurricane relief efforts. He may try to raise funds before he leaves and is looking for any aid groups in Puerto Rico who need his help. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sokolof also called on Queens residents to “not forget” about the toll that these events have taken on people.
“The media in general is not covering or visiting these areas and government involvement in the most remote areas is completely lacking,” Sokolof said. “The support that the affected people need again is long term and perhaps pressure from the immigrant community here, including the undocumented who don’t have a political voice here but do back home and can vote from local consulates, can make an impact in the upcoming Mexican elections.”