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After Mexico’s record storm, survivors say only tourist areas are getting the love

‘Until Otis hit, many people didn’t know all these communities even existed.’

Luz Maria Jiménez walks in front of her house on 7 November, weeks after strong winds from Hurricane Otis ripped off its tin roof. She is pictured walking into the frame from the right, on the left she is her home, an assortment of objects are spread all around. Stephania Corpi Arnaud
Luz María Jiménez walks in front of her house in Cerrito de Oro, near Acapulco, on 7 November, weeks after strong winds from Hurricane Otis ripped off its tin roof.

When Hurricane Otis struck, Luz María Jiménez was sleeping at her 90-year-old neighbour’s place. Jiménez, 68, stayed over often because the elderly woman couldn’t always care for herself and was afraid to sleep alone.

The storm decimated their close-knit community of less than 800 people in the municipality of Coyuca de Benítez, as rivers and streams burst their banks in the early hours of 25 October, unleashing devastating torrents of mud.

Both reside in a small inland town called Cerrito de Oro, about 16 kilometres from the Mexican resort city of Acapulco, where Otis became the first Pacific hurricane ever to make landfall with maximum Category 5 intensity.

As winds of up to 300 kilometres per hour ripped the metal sheets off their shack, Jiménez feared the worst. A muddy flow of water soon entered the house and flooded everything up to their necks.

“I did my best to carry her, to keep her alive,” Jiménez told The New Humanitarian. 

Hours later, when members of the community finally rescued them, they realised a wooden spike had pierced the old woman's leg. No one was able to stop the bleeding and the leg became infected. Neither cell phones nor the internet worked, and most roads were closed due to landslides and fallen trees. The woman died of her untreated wound a couple of days later.

In the month since Otis struck, residents of Cerrito de Oro, and across Coyuca de Benítez – in Ejido Viejo, San Isidro, Yetla, El Bodornal, and other towns – have been left wondering why help has failed to come, perpetuating a history of poverty and neglect.

“Until Otis hit, many people didn’t know all these communities even existed. We only knew about Acapulco,” Mónica González, national communication coordinator for the Mexican Red Cross, told The New Humanitarian.

An aerial view of Playa Diamante, Acapulco on 8 November. On the right se we see the beach. On the left a set of buildings that have been impacted by the hurricane.
Stephania Corpi Arnaud
An aerial view of Playa Diamante, Acapulco on 8 November. The touristy strip of coast was one of the areas worst hit by Hurricane Otis, the first Pacific hurricane ever to make landfall as a maximum Category 5 storm.

Over the past month, the Mexican government’s help and reconstruction efforts have focused mainly on the coastal, touristic parts of Acapulco, residents and aid responders say. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in other neighbourhoods of the city, and in the surrounding towns, has continued to deteriorate, as some communities face what has been described as the worst health crisis in the region's history.

The amount of debris the hurricane left behind, the uncollected trash accumulating in the streets – attracting insects and rats – compounded by the lack of sanitation and access to clean water has been making residents increasingly sick with stomach infections, diarrhoea, skin rashes, and respiratory diseases. Children are the most seriously affected, while hospitals and health centres are difficult to reach or only functioning at limited capacity. The presence of stagnant water is also threatening to cause outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue or Zika.

Six days before help arrived

Residents in Cerrito de Oro told The New Humanitarian they had to wait for six days without food, medical services, clean water, or electricity before some government assistance arrived. During that time, they survived by eating whatever they found – including animal carcasses, which caused a series of infections – drinking dirty stagnant water, and caring for the injured the best they could.

Jiménez’s neighbour was not the only one to die. According to official figures, Otis left 50 people dead and 30 more missing, but residents of Cerrito de Oro say those figures are an undercount. In their town alone, they say at least two people drowned after a nearby river overflowed and another was electrocuted by a loose cable a few days later. They buried their deceased in communal cemeteries, without governmental institutions registering their deaths.

The southwestern state of Guerrero, where Acapulco is located, has the country's second highest rate of extreme poverty. In Coyuca de Benítez, it reaches 27.3% of the population, 41% of residents have no access to health services, and illiteracy is at 12.2% – eight points higher than the national average. Most people’s income comes from remittances.

When the National Guard arrived in Cerrito de Oro, residents say all they provided was a food kit that included supplies for one family for one week; then they asked them to complete a census tallying the number of houses that were destroyed and abandoned.

News soon spread that the census was to establish who would receive the 8,000 pesos ($465) the government has promised to rebuild homes: a good enough reason for many to stay in their villages despite the health risks.

“God kept us alive,” said Ana Lines, who lives in Yetla, a town of 1,300 inhabitants northwest of Acapulco, speaking through tears after Otis destroyed her home, and much of her town. “From this road, you couldn’t see the houses. They used to be covered by palm trees. Now they’re all gone: The hurricane uprooted them all.”

Four weeks have passed since Otis made landfall, but no official help has come. Lines, 50, and her husband used some of the ripped metal sheets they found on the street to build a makeshift shelter to protect themselves from the sun.

A close-up of the profiles Francisco Ramos Ureña and his wife, Ana Lines de los Santos pictured in their car. Palm trees are in the background.
Stephania Corpi Arnaud
Francisco Ramos and his wife, Ana Lines, help to distribute food kits in Yetla on 7 November. The family’s home, up in the hills, was completely destroyed by Hurricane Otis.

“Local authorities have not been here, neither the mayor, nor the governor,” she said. “They will come again during election time.”

The New Humanitarian requested comment from the Guerrero governor’s office and the president's office – both responsible for disaster management – but they didn’t respond in time for publication.

Since Otis, residents of Coyuca de Benítez and other towns have also had to face an increasing threat from gangs in what is one of Mexico's most violent states.

Read more: The effects of rising gang violence in Acapulco

For two decades, cartels, gangs, and other criminal groups have fought for control of Acapulco and surrounding areas. In the past few years, levels of violence in this part of the Guerrero state have escalated sharply, making access to help more difficult for poor communities. 

Extortion cases in Guerrero ballooned from 4 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015 to 7 per 100,000 in 2022. Likewise, the state’s homicide rate surged by 20% in the first semester of 2023, claiming 800 lives.

According to data from the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, more than 330,000 people were displaced between 2006 and 2017 due to violence – many of them left communities in Guerrero and tried to make their way to the US border.

Just before Otis hit, Acapulco was living under an organised crime siege. In August, within a few weeks, there were narco blockades, a public transportation van was set on fire with its driver inside, and a local businessman and a ministerial agent were murdered, among other crimes.

The impact on an economy where over 80% of the population works in tourism was immediate: During a long September weekend that would normally be a peak booking period, hotel occupancy at the main resorts was only 50%. The 2023 Mexico Peace Index estimates that the economic cost of violence in Guerrero amounts to over 32% of its GDP.

A 47-year-old storm survivor, who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons, told The New Humanitarian the first food kits they received were taken by a local gang. Other residents and aid workers said humanitarian groups trying to bring in assistance had to be escorted by the National Guard to reach most places safely.

Aid organisations have been filling gaps in the government response.

The morning after Otis hit, the Mexican Red Cross sent 138 vehicles to deliver over 3,580 tons of food to all the affected areas in Coyuca de Benítez. They also distributed personal hygiene kits and bleach to prevent diseases like cholera and dengue, and medical aid, arranging transportation to Chilpancingo – Guerrero’s second largest city – and to Mexico City for those who required hospital care.

Although Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, promised to deliver a food kit per week to each affected family for three months, Lines said that in Yetla they “are still waiting for that help”. She said they only survived thanks to the hot meals aid organisations have been serving.

World Central Kitchen (WCK) has been very active in these remote areas. The NGO, led by celebrity chef José Andrés, says it has been preparing over 100,000 meals a day in Coyuca de Benítez and Acapulco.

Fatima Castillo, WCK’s operations manager for Latin America, told The New Humanitarian the organisation had been contacting chefs through the Mexican Tourism Secretariat and getting them to help out with the project. Overall, they have provided over 2.3 million meals in the affected area since the hurricane hit, she said.

Elisa Trujillo, general director of the National Center for Epidemiological Emergencies and Disasters (CENACED) – an NGO that combines the efforts of the private sector and UN agencies through a programme called Unidos por Ellxs – said it had been supporting hospitals and coordinating the efforts of 160 organisations of all sizes, including many aid and reconstruction groups.

Working with the Business Coordinating Council (CCE), CENACED has enabled large companies like Citibanemex, CEMEX, and Fundación Gigante to provide technical assistance and map out where other efforts are most needed.

Preparing for the climate crisis

To avoid future catastrophes in a region that is particularly vulnerable to the planet’s increasingly extreme weather events, experts say it’s urgent for Mexico to work more on preparedness.

“This is also one of the most vulnerable continents in terms of poverty, constructions on dangerous sites, and little land use regulations,” Rodney Martínez, the World Meteorological Organization’s regional representative, told The New Humanitarian.

“Climate has given us more surprises in 2023 than any year. We have four or five months in which the average temperature of the planet has been the highest ever recorded,” he said, underlining that the ongoing El Niño phenomenon will only make things worse.

Children are pictured playing in the overflow of the Yetla river on 7 November. Foliage is seen in the background as children play with a ball.
Stephania Corpi Arnaud
Children play in the overflow of the Yetla river on 7 November. Since most pumps broke in the storm, communities also use this water to bathe in and to wash their clothes.

According to the World Bank’s Groundswell report published in 2021, Latin America will have 17 million internal migrants by 2050 due to climate reasons.

For governments to invest in weather forecasting technology, as well as in resilience, is key, Martínez added. “It’s expensive, but it ends up saving lives,” he said.

Mexico has not only failed to do so, but it is going in the other direction.

The budget for the National Meteorological System was reduced from 72 million pesos in 2022 to 6 million in 2023. While no one anticipated the force of this hurricane, Martínez said improved construction regulations, better weather forecasting and monitoring, and greater investment in meteorological expertise would all have helped.

Facing protests from people in Acapulco and Coyuca de Benítez accusing him of a lacklustre response to Otis, AMLO pledged on 23 November to rebuild Guerrero state “in very little time”.

“I have been in Acapulco six times, coming every week… I will keep coming; the people of Acapulco and Coyuca are not alone,” he said. “We will continue to support them and help those affected.”

Some aid groups, however, believe the Mexican government’s reconstruction plan should incorporate more measures to reduce the risks of climate impact and break the vicious cycle of poverty.

“This is an opportunity for everyone in Guerrero to rebuild under other conditions that can reduce the vulnerability, increase resilience, and consider the threats people have to face in their territory,” said Trujillo from CENACED.

“When a disaster like Otis hit, it unleashes a domino effect for the population. If children don’t go to school after four months, dropouts skyrocket. Women are hit 14 times more by disasters than men, just because of the care roles we have by gender,” she added.

Ana Lines from Yetla told The New Humanitarian that on 25 November government officials did finally show up with the list of people that would receive money for reconstruction. But many of her neighbours were not included. 

“People really need economic support,” she said. “Most of us have lost everything.”

Edited by Daniela Mohor.

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