‘The children screamed for hours’: horrors of Hurricane Otis leave devastation for Acapulco’s poorest

Mexico’s Pacific coast was battered by 165mph winds and torrential rain on 25 October. Thousands lost their homes and many now have too little food or water to survive

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Lillian Perlmutter
Sat 4 Nov 2023 14.00 CET
In the small hours of Wednesday 25 October, Josefina Maldonado, a grandmother of two in her 60s who lives in the Renacimiento district of Acapulco, watched as the corrugated metal roof of her home flew into the sky, ripped off by 165mph (270km/h) winds. The family home and everything and everyone in it, including two terrified small children, were prey to the torrential rain and the horrors of the hurricane. Most of the furniture, including the beds, was swept away.

“It wasn’t that the wind or the water was stronger. Both were working together,” Maldonado says. “We were up all night trying to save what we could, and the children screamed and cried for hours.”

Hurricane Otis was the strongest storm ever to hit Mexico’s Pacific coast, damaging more than 200,000 homes and killing at least 45 people, with dozens reported missing. The failure to warn of its intensity is widely accepted as one of the biggest shortcomings in recent meteorological prediction. Just two days before it made landfall, the United States National Hurricane Center classified Otis as category 1 – but changed its prediction to category 5 just hours before the storm hit, by which time few in Acapulco had time to evacuate.

According to the centre, the climate crisis has altered water temperatures in the Pacific, making these kinds of quick accelerations more likely.

In Renacimiento the day after the storm, residents used scavenged rakes and shovels to pile the debris, including refrigerators, mattresses, food containers, bent street signs and children’s tricycles, in front of their homes, and created a pathway for people to walk through the plots of destroyed properties.

Roxana Guerrero and her husband, Jesus Rojas, work in the shell of their house in Acapulco.
Roxana Guerrero and her husband, Jesus Rojas, work in the shell of their house in Acapulco. Photograph: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

Maldonado didn’t find any of her furniture among the debris but was left to queue at the entrance to the area, waiting for a military vehicle to arrive with water. It wasn’t until the next day that she and other inhabitants received enough supply in containers for her family for several days.

They would need to find food, medicine and other provisions for themselves. “We’ve received almost no help,” Maldonado says.

Two days after the storm, residents received word that marines would dispense tinned beans, rice and biscuits to families in an adjacent neighbourhood. But a large crowd had gathered there, and it became clear there were insufficient supplies for everyone.

“People started fighting over the food, at first just yelling, and then pushing and punching one another, and the marines closed up and left,” says Maldonado. “They just decided they didn’t want to give it to us any more.”

Many residents had to rely on support from better-off neighbours. Several days after the storm hit, once the city’s main roads were cleared, a disaster economy set in, with prices twice or three times higher than normal. However, many residents no longer had any cash. Some needed help to make collective taxi rides to places up to an hour away where they heard they could find food.

People queue for supplies in Puerto Marquez, near Acapulco, on Wednesday.
People queue for supplies in Puerto Marquez, near Acapulco, on Wednesday. Photograph: José Luis González/Reuters

While wealthier residents of the city’s hotel districts could afford to leave the city, many living in the working-class areas that provide labour to the tourist zones worried they might lose their remaining belongings if they fled. Also, while they had the option of taking free buses to Chilpancingo, the nearby state capital, they only had enough money to stay there for a few days.

“Everyone needs to go back to work, but the jobs, they’re all gone,” Maldonado says, gesturing to the crumpled buildings and their missing walls.

Preliminary assessments by local authorities released on Thursday suggest the storm destroyed as much as 80% of Acapulco’s hotels – which would be devastating for the region’s economy, an international tourist spot in one of Mexico’s poorest states.

The Mexican government estimates that the reconstruction of Acapulco will cost a total of 61bn pesos (£2.8bn). Numerous prominent politicians in Mexico’s ruling Morena party have offered to add a month’s salary to the pot. The government has also sent 20,000 food ration packs and 200,000 litres of water to Acapulco. Still, hundreds of thousands of people have remained in the city, and the weather quickly returned to a scorching 32C after the storm.

“We want everyone to know that if your house is damaged, the government is going to help you,” Ariadna Montiel Reyes, secretary of welfare, said on Monday. She added that the number of sites providing rations would double within the next few days.

For some, such as Abdul Ramírez, a taxi driver, such promises appear hollow. “We’re waiting for the government when they decide to come. We’re not necessarily blaming them, but they’re not here,” he says.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, centre, and members of his cabinet visit the Kilómetro 42 community, 18 miles north of Acapulco in Guerrero state.
The Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, centre, and members of his cabinet visit the Kilómetro 42 community, 18 miles north of Acapulco in Guerrero state. Photograph: Rodrigo Oropeza/AFP/Getty Images

The country’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said this week that the armed forces would deliver all humanitarian aid so that civil organisations and local governments “wouldn’t try to profit from people’s necessity”. He spoke optimistically about recovery efforts, and hoped that families in Acapulco would be “content by Christmas”.

In the La Colosio district, which also sustained severe damage and flooding, desperate people took what they needed from a local Walmart. Without the supermarket, many would have starved for days, as severe flooding kept the area closed off from the rest of the city.

The store’s car park was blanketed with large, sharp strips of metal signs, toppled poles and shattered terracotta planters, but several men created a pathway and broke a window to get in. Within two days, the shelves were empty.

“By the time we got there, all of the normal food was gone, and there was only candy left, but my husband said, ‘It’s OK, chocolate will give us energy!’” says Laura Díaz, a GP.

People work to free cars stuck in the mud in the aftermath of Hurricane Otis in the Progreso district of Acapulco.
People work to free cars stuck in the mud in the aftermath of Hurricane Otis in the Progreso district of Acapulco. Photograph: Quetzalli Nicte-Ha/Reuters

Lacking a gas supply, residents have begun to cook collectively over fires lit amid the trash heaps. As of last Sunday, 29 October, roads have been open, but La Colosio had still not received any food or water from the government, aside from half-litre bottles handed out sporadically by passing national guard patrols.

As the city fills with surveyors carrying clipboards and troops with automatic weapons, Maldonado has begun to wonder why these people who had been sent to help were not dispensing vital necessities such as food and water. “This might be a test from God,” she says. “Maybe this is our penance for something.”