ACAPULCO, Mexico – The tourists were bused out of Acapulco to find relief as far away as Mexico’s capital. But thousands of residents were left behind to deal with the chaos and destruction of Hurricane Otis, which had turned their paradise into a wasteland.
Three days after the Category 5 storm came ashore in Mexico, residents Saturday were navigating streets coated in broken glass, uprooted trees and fallen telephone poles. People throughout Acapulco were searching ransacked stores for water and other sustenance. Others were using amateur radio to try to find loved ones. Many were pleading for basic resources from Mexico’s leaders.
“The government is not helping,” said Roberto Alvarado, 45, after arguing with a military sergeant giving out just one box of food and four bottles of water to each household.
Alvarado said that was not nearly enough amid the level of desperation that had prompted people in Acapulco to loot grocery stores.
“They loot because they want to eat,” he said. “Not a single store is open to buy food, not a single tortillería.”
Otis, the most powerful hurricane on record to hit Mexico’s Pacific Coast, unleashed hours of terror, shocked meteorologists and government officials with its intensity, left the city effectively isolated from the outside world and killed at least 39 people, including 29 men and 10 women, according to Mexican officials on Saturday. The number of people missing rose to 10, according to Rosa Icela Rodríguez, security secretary. Residents expect the death toll to rise.
Those who survived the storm – 850,000 people had called the city of Acapulco, in Guerrero state, home before the hurricane – questioned how long it would take for their government to provide basic resources, let alone rebuild. Others asked whether any other precautions could have been taken to avoid the widespread destruction.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who briefly visited the scene, has promised his nation an effective response to the hurricane. About 10,000 armed forces were deployed to the area, and some were seen Friday shoveling debris from streets and marching down the beachfront’s main avenue in an overt display of the government’s response.
Military planes carrying food and water began landing Thursday at an air force base, taxiing to a hangar damaged by the storm. Trucks carrying military and National Guard officers traversed neighborhoods to distribute aid to each household; officials said they were rationing supplies.
As of Friday afternoon, the military had received more than 7,600 boxes of food and more than 11,000 liters of water at the air base in Acapulco, and more was on the way, said Lt. Karina Sánchez of the Mexican army.
A civil protection official said he had bused more than 140 tourists out of Acapulco to the city of Chilpancingo, more than 60 miles north, and to the nation’s capital, Mexico City, usually five hours away. But the roads were jam-packed with vehicles, and the journey most likely took much longer.
“We didn’t expect a hurricane of such magnitude,” Sánchez said in an interview from the military hangar on Friday.
Forecast models had failed to predict that the tropical storm would intensify into a hurricane within 24 hours, packing winds of more than 165 mph and severing power and communication in much of Acapulco, outages that persisted days after the storm made landfall.
“The lines are down,” Sánchez said. “But, even so, help is being sent to the population.”
The scale of the destruction was daunting. A preliminary analysis by Moody’s Analytics found that the cost of Hurricane Otis could be compared with that of Hurricane Wilma, another Category 5 hurricane, which hit Mexico’s Caribbean coast 18 years ago. Insured losses from that storm totaled about $2.7 billion in 2005 dollars, official figures show.
Evelyn Salgado Pineda, governor of Guerrero state, said 80% of the hotels in Acapulco had been damaged by this hurricane, some with their entire walls peeled off.
The broader business sector in the city will struggle to recover, according to Héctor Tejada, president of the Confederation of National Chambers of Commerce, Services and Tourism. “Unfortunately, it may be the case that many businesses can no longer open their doors due to lack of financial resources,” Tejada said.
Residents, however, were focused on their immediate basic needs – and scrounged to find supplies. López Obrador acknowledged Friday that many businesses in the area had been looted.
Sheila Vanessa Andraca, 24, and José Raúl Vargas, 25, said they had traveled 11 miles into Acapulco after Hurricane Otis knocked out electricity in their community, Kilómetro 30, also in Guerrero state. Mudslides blocked the roads. At least one girl was missing, and another was found dead in the rubble, they said. They noted that the dead girl could not be counted in Mexico’s official toll since authorities had not yet visited their community.
Once the roads were partly cleared, they ventured into Acapulco to try to find supplies for their families. “I said, ‘Well, let’s see if they happen to be selling things off,’” said Vargas, holding the only bottle of water the couple had been rationing throughout the day.
But when they arrived at a supermarket, everything was gone.
“Now where are we going to go?” Andraca said. “It’s shocking to see so much looting.”
Mexico historically has been internationally praised for its disaster-recovery efforts and its pool of federal money for disaster relief. Studies found that the fund had helped to quickly restore health services and eased bottlenecks in delivering disaster aid.
After Hurricane Maria hit the northeastern Caribbean in 2017, including Puerto Rico, Mexico came to the aid of the United States even as it was recovering from its own disasters.
But López Obrador has faced criticism for overhauling the pot of federal money two years ago in his push for budget cuts across the federal government. He said the fund was being abused by corrupt officials.
David Sislen, who works with Latin American and Caribbean nations on risk-management strategies for the World Bank, said one task for any nation recovering from a Category 5 storm would be to ensure that impoverished neighborhoods with outdated infrastructure receive the same focus as “the shinier, or fancier, central areas of cities.”
“The poor, the more vulnerable, the more excluded are the ones who most suffer,” Sislen said.
In the long term, communities can take steps to prevent damage like the shutdown of electricity and communication systems seen in Acapulco. Municipalities can ensure that major electric infrastructure is not in flood zones. They can invest in concrete telephone and utility poles rather than wooden ones, and put them underground. (The poles in Acapulco are concrete, but they appeared not to run underground.)
Rubén Navarrete, an engineer for a telecommunications company in Querétaro, Mexico, has been working with a network of volunteers using amateur radio to help connect people with relatives affected by Hurricane Otis. On Thursday, he said, he had delivered the message to a woman in the United States that her daughter in Acapulco was safe.
“The lady burst into tears,” Navarrete said. “She hadn’t had any communication; she was terrified about what was going on with her daughter.”
Many of those still in Acapulco after the storm flocked to a parish turned shelter in the Costa Azul neighborhood. Inside, about 70 people dozed on Friday in sleeping bags on benches, prayed in silence or anxiously discussed their next move.
Martha García, 63, said her husband, Abel Sánchez, 70, was discharged from the hospital on Tuesday after coming down with pneumonia three months ago. Then, on Wednesday morning, the hurricane effectively wiped out Acapulco.
“It’s as if misfortune keeps following us,” she said.
García had come to the shelter in hopes that someone could help her find an oxygen tank. But even finding food had been a major hurdle, she said. She had stumbled upon flour tortillas and canned beans in a ransacked convenience store.
“That’s what we’ve been eating and what I’ve been feeding my husband,” she said.
She did not plan to evacuate anytime soon, she said, adding, “What I need is oxygen.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.