Acapulco residents await aid in wake of hurricane

A Mexican National Guard soldier tries to stop people carrying away items like diapers and canned goods Wednesday, while others take electronics from a store at a shopping mall after Hurricane Otis ripped through Acapulco, Mexico.
(AP/Marco Ugarte)
A Mexican National Guard soldier tries to stop people carrying away items like diapers and canned goods Wednesday, while others take electronics from a store at a shopping mall after Hurricane Otis ripped through Acapulco, Mexico. (AP/Marco Ugarte)

ACAPULCO, Mexico -- Survivors of the Pacific hurricane that killed at least 27 people as it devastated Acapulco spent Thursday searching for acquaintances and necessities and hoping that aid arrives quickly in the wake of Hurricane Otis.

Resentment grew in impoverished neighborhoods as residents worried that government attention would go to repairing tourism infrastructure, the city's economic engine, rather than helping the neediest.

The Mexican government has deployed the military and Flora Contreras Santos, a housewife from a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, went from soldier to soldier trying to interest one in the tragedy that occurred on her street at the height of the hurricane Tuesday night.

On Tuesday, Otis took many by surprise when it rapidly strengthened from a tropical storm to a powerful Category 5 hurricane as it tore along the coast.

A hillside collapsed on a family in a tin-roofed home. The force of the mud and water tore a 3-year-old girl away from her mother, and she hadn't been seen since.

"The mountain came down on them. The mud took her from the mother's arms," Contreras said. "We need help, the mother is in bad shape and we can't find the girl."

Even as army bulldozers began clearing knee-deep mud from Acapulco's main boulevards, her pleas did not appear to move any of the soldiers to action.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador went by road Wednesday after the hurricane hit the iconic city on Mexico's Pacific coast. At least four people remained missing. It was unclear if the girl was counted among them.

The president said Otis had toppled every power-line pole in the zone where it hit on Wednesday, leaving much of the city of 1 million without electricity.

Otis turned from mild to monster in record time, and scientists are struggling to figure out how -- and why they didn't see it coming.

"The people sheltered, protected themselves and that's why fortunately there weren't more tragedies, loss of human life," López Obrador said.

Acapulco's municipal water system was down and some 500,000 homes lost power. López Obrador said that restoring power was a top priority.

Brown floodwaters extended for miles in some areas. Many residents were taking basic items from stores to survive in the wake of the storm. Others left with pricier goods.

The surreal was commonplace Thursday.

Ricardo Díaz, a self-employed laborer, stood Thursday with two fistfuls of live chickens he clutched by their legs.

A chicken company had given him the chickens, Diaz said.

A woman nearby pushed an office chair loaded with artificial Christmas wreaths and toilet paper through the streets.

Díaz looked on in dismay as people carried armfuls of goods out of a damaged store.

"They're going to close these stores and that hurts Acapulco," Díaz said.

Edith Villanueva, holding her daughter, worried about what would happen to Acapulco in the long term.

She worked at a cellphone store that had already been cleaned out.

"They already stole all of the phones," she said. "It's one thing to steal food, but people are abusing it."

Some residents said it could take a year for Acapulco to recover; with no power, gasoline, little cell coverage and hotels wrecked by the hurricane, the task seemed impossible.

Marketing expert Antonio Esparza was one of the few optimistic ones, even as he sat trapped in the snarled traffic of the aftermath.

"This is going to improve Acapulco, because it will force the government to pay attention," he said.

Large stores that had their merchandise taken were not restocking their shelves, meaning finding goods could become harder. But street-produce vendors were doing brisk business in some neighborhoods as residents sought fresh food.

The once-sleek beachfront hotels in Acapulco looked like toothless, shattered hulks after the Category 5 storm blew out hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of windows.

There seemed to be widespread frustration with authorities. While around 10,000 troops were deployed to the area, they lacked equipment to move tons of mud and fallen trees from the streets. Hundreds of trucks from the government electricity company arrived in Acapulco early Wednesday but downed electricity lines were in feet of mud and water.

It took nearly all day Wednesday for authorities to partially reopen the main highway connecting Acapulco to the state capital Chilpancingo and Mexico City. The vital ground link allowed dozens of emergency vehicles, personnel and trucks carrying supplies to reach the battered port.

Information for this article was contributed by Seth Borenstein of The Associated Press.

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