President Ernesto Zedillo toured Acapulco’s hurricane-damaged slums Tuesday and promised clean drinking water for thousands of survivors as the first reports of cholera emerged.
Young girls washed clothes in a fetid river that had raged over its banks last week, giggling as Zedillo got his boots dirty in the muck.
“There’s no running water, and all of the clothes are muddy,” said Elizabeth Ramirez, 13. “It smells bad.”
Fearing outbreaks of cholera, salmonella and other diseases, health officials launched a massive effort to deliver water to areas stricken by Hurricane Pauline, which claimed more than 230 lives.
On Monday, the army was brought in to take charge of 67 homeless shelters after residents complained that emergency food aid was being hoarded or stolen by local leaders.
Tens of thousands are homeless since Pauline pummeled hundreds of miles of coast Oct. 8-9. Many residents have been drinking, bathing and washing clothes in rivers and streams contaminated by garbage, feces and - it’s feared - human and animal remains buried under the mud.
Federal authorities sent in 25 brigades of health workers, along with mobile water purification units Tuesday. Three cases of cholera - the intestinal illness that comes from tainted water and can cause fatal dehydration - have been reported.
“It’s probable that the number of cholera cases will increase in the next few days,” warned Alfonso Ares de Parga, an aide to Health Secretary Juan Ramon de la Fuente. “The first priority is water. We have to make sure the water is purified.”
Asked if he was pleased with the government’s disaster response, Zedillo said he was still working to alleviate human suffering. “I can’t be happy because the people are sad,” he said.
He said health officials were monitoring the situation with cholera and other diseases. “We have all the elements in place to confront this problem,” he insisted.
“Viva Zedillo! Viva Zedillo!” hurricane victims shouted, their morale lifted by the sight of the president, who was quickly thronged by victims beseeching him for more disaster aid.
Where the river ripped apart a bridge and swept away houses, workers put up new phone and power lines and replaced mangled water pipes Tuesday.
Officials later said running water had been restored in two hard-hit neighborhoods, that one cholera victim has been released from the hospital and that safer areas for building away from rivers were being planned.
Arturo Warman, secretary of Agricultural Reform, said nearly 500 acres would be set aside for new housing, with plans to expand to nearly 5,000 acres that would house 80,000 people by the year 2000.
At least 2,000 people shielded themselves from the blazing sun with scraps of cardboard as they lined up at a school for water. “(Zedillo) is supporting us,” said Elisa Gomez Padilla, 67. “There is a lot of help coming.”
“This is the first time the water trucks have come to this neighborhood,” said 14-year-old Karina Martinez Delegado. “Maybe it has something to do with the visit of the president.”
Bulldozers rumbled everywhere, and hundreds of water trucks rumbled over hillsides as people carted water jugs away on shoulders.
Many said they were fearful of disease. “We are bathing in the rivers. The little water that we can find, we need to save for drinking,” said Maria de Jesus Soto, 26. “We are worried about stomach illness, diarrhea.”
U.S. Filter, of Palm Desert, Calif., donated a mobile water filtration system capable of producing 1.3 million gallons a day - more than all of the water being distributed each day by Mexican authorities.
The water will go directly into Acapulco’s pipes to ravaged neighborhoods. However, it was not clear when it would be fully installed.