Hurricane Pauline struck Mexico’s most famous tourist resort Thursday, unleashing deadly torrents that swept people, cars and boulders toward ravaged Pacific beaches before being downgraded to a tropical storm.
At least 118 people were killed in the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, home to Acapulco, where Pauline sent torrents of rainwater raging through streets. Twice that number were reported injured, and dozens were missing. Floods and mudslides were rampant, and damage was extensive.
All ports were closed from Tapachula, near the Guatemalan border, to Acapulco. Air traffic was suspended. Power was out along most of the coast, and telephone service was spotty.
The U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami said late Thursday night that the center of Pauline was inland, about 100 miles southeast of the coast resort of Manzanillo, and moving northwest at 13 mph. Winds had dropped to 50 mph - below the hurricane level of 74 mph. But heavy flood warnings remained in effect.
Guerrero state secretary Humberto Salgado said 94 people died Thursday in Acapulco - most of them drowned by flash floods.
Rescuers dug bodies out of mud heaps and collapsed buildings and brought them to the local morgue, where 65 bodies were laid out for identification. Some of the contorted cadavers were dressed in night clothes.
“My God, this is hard,” said Julio Rodriguez, looking for his father-in-law, missing since the morning. “They are unrecognizable.”
Authorities appealed for help for Acapulco, which the federal government declared a disaster area. The beach resort had run out of gasoline, drinking water, food, clothing, medicines and many more essentials.
“This is a very sad day,” said Guerrero Gov. Angel Aguirre. He said at least five other people were killed elsewhere in the state, adding, “We don’t recall a hurricane ever having caused such damage.”
In neighboring Oaxaca state, where Pauline first struck with 115-mph winds a day earlier, state government spokesman Leandro Hernandez confirmed 19 deaths, 15 people missing and thousands of homeless.
“The figure could still rise,” said Hernandez, speaking with the Associated Press by telephone from the state, where Pauline ripped makeshift homes away and badly damaged such resorts as Puerto Angel.
Fueled by the warm El Nino ocean currents, Pauline powered towering waves - 30 feet tall on exposed coasts - that pounded Acapulco’s pristine beaches to a maelstrom of trash and twisted lounge chairs.
Heavy rains turned streets into roaring rivers of debris. Water swept boulders the size of cars down the hills and flipped vehicles like toys, catching some with lights still on, their doors underwater. A coastal highway skirting the beaches teemed with raging water, and one man’s body stuck from the mud, arms outstretched and mouth agape.
President Ernesto Zedillo, on a state visit to Germany, ordered army troops into stricken areas along a long stretch of coast. Troops in Humvees poured into Acapulco by the hundreds to secure areas around homes wrecked by floods.
TV footage showed bodies mired in the mud. Jaime Herandez, 40, who lives in the hills near Acapulco, said police took away at least seven bodies after mud and water came rushing down before dawn.
“We’ve got rain coming down, mud slides blocking roads. Houses have fallen, walls are down,” Red Cross spokesman Marco Antonio Santiago said.
There were no reports of casualties among American or other tourists. Many foreigners stayed in hotels while hundreds of Mexicans up and down the coast remained in emergency shelters.
“You feel bad for the people - there’s so much poverty and it’s the off-season and now this,” said Joyce Walton, a 33-year-old tourist from Chicago.
The Dutch cruise ship Veendman, with more than 1,000 people aboard, left Acapulco on Wednesday and headed south despite the hurricane warnings. By Thursday afternoon, the ship had contacted its next port of call in Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, officials said. Ernesto Gonzalez, the duty officer at Puerto Caldera, said the Veendman was due Saturday morning.
Acapulco’s deadliest drama unfolded in working neighborhoods on the hills above the five-star oceanfront hotels as a 40-foot-wide torrent tumbled toward the sea.
“We felt our apartment building tremble because of the rocks the river was throwing against the foundations,” said Elilasio Garcia, 22, who escaped one 10-story concrete building when a nearly dry gulch sprang to life.
Hundreds of modest homes of cement and wood tottered and collapsed into floodwaters and kneedeep torrents raced down many streets closer to Acapulco’s beach, rushing to the sea.
The hurricane barreled ashore near Huatulco in Oaxaca state on Wednesday, blowing down plywood homes.
In a public housing project in Huatulco, children drew water from a dirty canal using buckets after the canal overflowed its banks and sent 3 feet of mud into homes there.
“The water took away everything,” said Rosaura Aguilar Ramirez, 38. “It took our clothes. It took our dishes. Everything.”
In Puerto Angel, where Pauline first rumbled ashore on Wednesday, many houses that weren’t made of concrete were washed away, said Federico Velazquez, a federal highway police official in radio contact with that city. Waves tore away the beach of the Huatulco Sheraton.
Forecasters said El Nino, a phenomenon in which unusually warm waters disrupt weather patterns, apparently was to blame for the high number of powerful Pacific hurricanes this year.
Graphic: Hurricane Pauline aims at Mexican resorts